Debra J. Saunders

I am a veteran of the math wars. I was there in 1995 when the shiny new California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) test told graders to award a higher score to a student who incorrectly answered a math problem about planting trees -- but wrote an enthusiastic essay -- than to a student who got the answer right, but with no essay.

The genius responsible for that math question explained that her goal was to present eighth-graders with "an intentionally ambiguous problem in which no one pattern can be considered the absolute answer." Gov. Pete Wilson's education czar, Maureen DiMarco, promptly dubbed new-new math "fuzzy crap."

I was there in 1997, when a trendy second-grade math textbook featured a lesson called "fantasy lunch," which instructed students to draw their fantasy lunch on paper, cut out the food and place their drawings into a bag.

I've heard from young adults who aced high school math only to find themselves utterly unprepared for college math. So it was no surprise when Stanford University math professor James Milgram found that the number of California State University students who needed remedial math had more than doubled, from 23 percent in 1989 to 54 percent in 1997.

That's about the time when some parents, teachers and academics declared war on new-new math fabulism. They gained a foothold on local school boards and state curriculum committees. By the time they were through, trendy math educators no longer felt safe talking down to parents while agreeing among themselves that "there is no right answer."

A battle won, alas, is not won forever. A key win for true math enthusiasts was the California standard that called for eighth-graders to learn algebra -- and that standard has been a target ever since.

On Monday, the state Board of Education will vote on a proposal to adopt national Common Core State Standards, commissioned by President Obama and adopted by 27 states. If the board votes yes, as recommended by the 21-member state Academic Content Standards Commission, the Golden State's eighth-grade Algebra I standard will go the way of old soldiers.

Supporters of the Common Core standards argue that enrolling more eighth-graders in algebra doesn't necessarily make them learn. Yes, the number of eighth-graders enrolled in Algebra I grew from 16 percent to 60 percent today, the highest in the nation. But, they observe, only 27 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in the subject.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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