It took parents 17 years to overturn the tragic 1989 curriculum mistake made by so-called education experts who demanded that schools abandon traditional mathematics in favor of unproven approaches. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics finally reversed course on Sept. 12 and admitted that elementary schools really should teach arithmetic, after all.
The new report called "Curriculum Focal Points for Pre-kindergarten Through Grade 8 Mathematics" is a back-to-basics victory that rejects the type of math curricula that parents had derided as "fuzzy math" or "rain forest math." Experts preferred such hoity-toity titles as "New New Math," "Connected Math," "Chicago Math," "Core-Plus Math," "Whole Math," "Interactive Math" or "Integrated Math."
Whatever the title, these curricula imbedded the notion that estimates are acceptable in lieu of accurate answers to math problems so long as students feel good about what they are doing and can think up a reason for doing it. Fuzzy curricula were big on discussion, coloring, playing games, and early use of calculators.
The 1989 report, which gives the word "standards" a bad name, flatly opposed drilling students in basic math facts, taught that memorization of math facts was bad, and failed to systematically build from one math concept to another. Children were encouraged to "discover" math on their own, construct their own math language, and flounder with their own approaches to solving problems. This silliness is based on the false notion that children can develop a deeper understanding of mathematics when they invent their own methods for performing basic calculations.
Despite widespread parental opposition, in October 1999 Bill Clinton's Department of Education officially endorsed 10 new math courses, based on the 1989 "standards," for grades K-12, calling them "exemplary" or "promising." Local school districts were urged to adopt one of them, and were baited with federal money inducements.
One department-approved "exemplary" course, "MathLand," directed children to meet in small groups and invent their own ways to add, subtract, multiply and divide. It's too bad the kids weren't told that wiser adults have already discovered how to do all those basic computations rapidly and accurately.
It wasn't only parents who quickly sized up fuzzy math curricula as subtracting rather than adding to the skills of schoolchildren. On Nov. 18, 1999, more than 200 prestigious mathematicians and scholars, including four Nobel laureates and two winners of the Fields Medal, the highest math honor, published a full-page ad in the Washington Post criticizing the "exemplary" curricula.
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
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