Roberta M. Eisenberg is chair of the UFT Math Teachers Committee.
As controversies rage about the best way to teach math and whether students should be allowed to use calculators — incidentally, the State Education Department on Dec. 1 declared that calculators will now be considered teaching materials, like textbooks, and schools must provide them to students — the real question is why children in this country are not better at learning math. Is it the curriculum? Is it the equipment? Is it the tests? And, haven’t we heard all this before?
In 1957, the Russians sent up Sputnik, stealing a march in the space race, and the United States decided that something had to be done, in a hurry, about math and science instruction in this country. Thus were born National Science Foundation grants to teachers of math and science so that they might get master’s degrees in their subjects rather than in education. A generation of teachers excitedly brought their advanced knowledge back to their classrooms.
Also in the early ’60s, the so-called New Math was influencing curricula across the country. The result was an emphasis on concepts to the detriment of the basics. Naturally, there was an eventual backlash when parents could no longer understand their children’s homework.
By the ’70s, teachers in middle and high schools were noticing that students were getting weaker on their recall of times tables and other basics. This could not then be blamed on calculators because there were no calculators yet in general use.
In the ’90s there was growing concern that lack of math skills by American kids would reduce us to a third-world economy. A few weeks ago, an article in The New York Times said essentially the same thing. In “As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics” (Nov. 14), Tamar Lewin stated, “For the second time in a generation, education officials are rethinking the teaching of math in American schools.”
This was not the second time nor was it only in one generation. Changing the curriculum has been going on for at least 150 years. At one time, the math skills needed by the citizenry were mainly arithmetic and practical geometry. Carpenters knew about rectangles and squares in order to produce cabinets with right angles in the right places. Very few people went to college, and therefore very few needed to know algebra and more advanced math.
It is instructive — and funny — to read some of the old tirades against slide rules and typewriters. They were blamed for students’ loss of ability to do times tables, and it was even claimed that students would no longer be able to write legibly.
Every advance in technology has brought about changes in curriculum. The State of New York has been very slow in permitting and then requiring calculators on high school Regents exams — finally allowing basic calculators. In 1989, graphing calculators began to appear. As teachers got excited by the new technology and began to change the way mathematics is taught, they also began to push the SED to require these calculators on math exams. Finally, for the past few years, they have been allowed on the Math A and required on the Math B Regents.
Now New York math standards are changing again in reaction to outcries from parents and teachers after disastrous results on the Math A Regents a few years ago. Math A and B are being replaced after a short-lived, unsuccessful life. No one knows what the new Regents in algebra, geometry and intermediate algebra and trigonometry will look like.
So why have student skills gradually deteriorated over the decades?
Is it the fault of the curriculum? There is no national curriculum in any subject. In New York State, since the introduction of Math A and B, we have the completely illogical situation of standards and assessments without any curriculum. The UFT and NYSUT have followed the AFT’s call for a grade-by-grade curriculum. Teachers need to know exactly what to teach and in how much depth. Students and parents must know what is required on each assessment (as exams are now called).
Is it the fault of calculators and other technology? Students learn much more exciting mathematics and can literally see things with graphing calculators that were never really seen before, not even by authors of calculus textbooks. The types of questions asked have necessarily changed as the technology has improved. In fact, with a graphing calculator — and simpler calculators at lower levels — the math that students do is much harder than without them.
So why are students not learning math and comparing unfavorably with students in other countries on international tests? Around 1990, Al Shanker cited a statistic that was shocking to hear but realistic upon reflection. He said, “Sixty-five percent of high school students in our country never do any homework. Never do any.”
Parents and the public don’t expect excellence to occur, nor even passable skills, in sports and music without lots of practice and repetition. How can they expect less from academic subjects?
Related to this is a public belief that it’s OK not to be able to do math. Parents often tell their kids that they themselves could “never do math” either. As Nicholas D. Kristof stated in a Times Op-Ed piece (“Watching the Jobs Go By,” Feb. 11, 2004), “The broader problem is not just in schools but society as a whole: There’s a tendency in U.S. intellectual circles to value the humanities but not the sciences. Anyone who doesn’t nod sagely at the mention of Plato’s cave is dismissed as barely civilized, while it’s no blemish to be ignorant of statistics, probability and genetics.”
He concluded, “In 1957, the Soviet launching of Sputnik frightened America into substantially improving math and science education. I’m hoping that the loss of jobs in medicine and computers to India and elsewhere will again jolt us into bolstering our own teaching of math and science.”
The hard part is not the teaching but the changing of attitudes in a country.