Debra J. Saunders

In the 1990s, the Math Wars pitted two philosophies against each other. One side argued for content-based standards -- that elementary school students must memorize multiplication tables by third grade. The other side argued for students to discover math, unfettered by "drill and kill" exercises.

When the new 1994 California Learning Assessment Test trained test graders to award a higher score to a child with a wrong answer (but good essay) than to a student who successfully solved a math problem, but without a cute explanation, the battle was on. New-new math was quickly dubbed "fuzzy crap." By the end of the decade, repentant educators passed solid math standards.

Yet the Math Wars continue in California, as well as in New Jersey, Oregon and elsewhere. In Palo Alto, parent and former Bush education official Ze'ev Wurman is one of a group of parents who oppose the Palo Alto Unified School District Board's April 14 vote to use "Everyday Mathematics" in grades K-5. Wurman recognizes that the "fuzzies" aren't as fuzzy as they used to be, but also believes that state educators who approve math texts "fell asleep at the switch" when they approved the "Everyday" series in 2007.

The "Everyday" approach supports "spiraling" what students learn over as long as two or more years. As an "Everyday" teacher guide explained, "If we can, as a matter of principle and practice, avoid anxiety about children 'getting' something the first time around, then children will be more relaxed and pick up part or all of what they need. They may not initially remember it, but with appropriate reminders, they will very likely recall, recognize, and get a better grip on the skill or concept when it comes around again in a new format or application -- as it will!" Those are my italics -- to highlight the "fuzzies'" performance anxiety.

Becki Cohn-Vargas of the Palo Alto schools told me that a majority of a district committee recommended "Everyday Math" after "a very extensive process." "Spiraling" helps students because "it goes deeper each time." Also, the district will closely observe where the new series needs to be supplemented. "We have a lot of confidence in our teachers," she added and the district's high test scores support that.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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