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6th January
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, January 6, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

A group of New York City’s most senior mathematics professors have urged Chancellor Joel Klein to abandon the use of what they term “defective” math curricula in the public schools.

The letter, sent to the Mr. Klein on December 17, comes as the city Department of Education considers standardizing its programs as part of the “Children First” initiative. That plan is to be released this month.
“Support for [the] defective curricula will profoundly damage the career opportunities of New York City children, the viability of mathematics and science programs at many CUNY colleges, and the economic infrastructure of New York City,” the eight veteran professors charge.

Co-signers of the letter include Charles Newman, Acting Director of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University and Robert Feinerman, head of the Mathematics Department at Lehman College.

In appealing to Mr. Klein, the professors are throwing down the gauntlet in a national controversy that has divided educators and parents across the nation since 1989. That’s when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics first endorsed the “constructivist” mathematics standard, now widely referred to as “fuzzy math.”

While the philosophy has won adherents among those teaching math education to prospective K-12 teachers, their colleagues in the math departments have been less generous. When the work of City College Education Professor Catherine Fosnot was highlighted in Education Update this past September, a colleague, math professor Stanley Ocken, co-authored a blistering critique published in the same newspaper two months later.

The professors have been highly critical of the prominent role that nonmathematicians are playing in setting the direction of math instruction in the city.

They were particularly contemptuous of the appointment of former District 2 math coordinator Lucy West to Mr. Klein’s Children First numeracy working panel.

While all of the math professors hold doctorates in their field, Ms. West holds no degree in mathematics. She received her B.A. degree in theatre arts from Empire State College in 1984, and holds a masters in education from Bank Street College.

The New York professors’ opposition to the constructivist programs echoes the 1999 protest to Richard Riley, the former Education Secretary, published in the Washington Post. That letter was co-signed by more than 200 prominent mathematicians and scientists, including seven Nobel laureates and Fields Medal winners and the math department chairs of Harvard, Cal Tech, Stanford, and Yale.

Math instruction in New York City has been troublesome for some time. The performance of the city students appears to worsen as they move through the system.

This past year, 51.9% of city fourth graders taking the state math test met the standards. But by eighth grade, performance appears to deteriorate significantly. This year only 28.8% of eighth graders met the state standard.

The day before the professors sent their letter to Mr. Klein, his deputy for instruction, Diana Lam, told members of the city’s panel for educational policy there may be more than 75 different curricula in use in New York’s public schools. In addition, published accounts suggested Mr. Klein has grown skeptical of constructivist methodology.

Increased attention has been paid recently to criticism of the “fuzzy” approach, which came out of a report issued in the spring of 2001 by the commission on mathematics education, chaired by Matthew Goldstein, the City University chancellor.

The professors cited this study in the letter to Mr. Klein.

The commission, appointed by Mr. Klein’s predecessor, Harold Levy, charged that “the NCTM standards do not contain the rigor, algorithmic approach, formal methods, and logical reasoning which are required [of] students who will go on to become scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, physicians, and educators of mathematics.”

The Bush administration appears to be taking sides in the math wars, coming down on the side of the professors.

The U.S. Education Department recently awarded a one-year, $400,000 grant to Doug Carnine, of the University of Oregon; R. James Milgram, of Stanford University; and Tom Loveless, of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

All three were involved in the California’s successful “back-to-basics” program. In California, public funds cannot be used to buy “fuzzy math” materials. The award of this grant to anti-constructivist activists is widely seen as a clear message of intent from the administration.

This raises the stakes for city education officials, who can ill afford to invest more in programs that may soon no longer be eligible for federal funding.

This is what happened to many equally controversial “whole language” reading programs under the No Child Left Behind Law.

The professors noted that the failures of the public school system are particularly felt at City University colleges, where 60% of the entering students are New York City public school graduates.
They note that the university produces 40% of the school system’s new
teachers. Failures along the way, they suggest, perpetuates a vicious cycle in which poorly prepared college students become inadequately prepared teachers.

“The past failures of mathematics education in New York City are coming full circle, as evidenced by observations of K-6 teachers who don’t know whether the numerator of a fraction is above or below the fraction line and who think that 1/4 is larger than 1/3 because 4 is greater than 3,” the professors wrote.
They conclude, “for the sake of New York City’s children, first and foremost, we want such spectacular failures to become a memory of the distant past.”

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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