Mountain: Math Curriculum Doesn't Add Up

The Newton Tab

by Tom Mountain

January 12, 2005

The school department was recently forced to publicly admit that the sixth-grade MCAS math scores have steadily declined over the past three years to the point where 32 percent of sixth-graders are now in the "warning" or "needs improvement" category. This means that if we were to attach a letter grade to these sixth-grade MCAS math results it would be a D-plus, with only 68 percent of the students passing. Brown Middle School fared so poorly that it is now subject to be placed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for failing to keep pace under the minimum "adequate yearly progress guidelines."

The school department offered no tangible explanation for these declining scores other than to admit that they have no explanation, as articulated by Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Carolyn Wyatt (salary $106,804), "[The results] have decreased, incrementally, each year and continue to puzzle us." She went on to admit that this downward trend is peculiar to Newton and "is not being seen statewide." Again, she offered no explanation, but she did assure the School Committee that her assistant, Math Coordinator Mary Eich (salary $101,399), is currently investigating the problem.

Unless the current decline in the sixth-grade math MCAS scores is reversed, within four years the rate of passing for sixth-graders will dip below 60 percent. Since the school department has neither an explanation nor a solution to the problem, and since it's likely that these same highly paid administrators will still be in their positions overseeing this problem for which they have neither an explanation nor a solution, there is every reason to assume that this downward trend will continue.

The School Committee, those elected overseers of the school department, offered no instructions, challenges, or demands to those administrators under whose watch this downward trend occurred. The committee members, who are on a first-name basis with these bureaucrats, apparently have an unspoken rule against demanding explanations from their school department friends. Besides, Superintendent Young would never permit his School Committee to publicly challenge his school administrators. So no one was subjected to scrutiny, no one was held accountable, no one was put on notice. The members sat passively and did nothing, just as these bureaucrats expected.

But why have the sixth-grade MCAS scores plummeted in just three years? What mitigating circumstances, such as demographic or economic factors, could have contributed to this downward spiral?

Since Newton has been curiously alone in this decline, surely we can't blame the MCAS itself, especially since the test has hardly changed in just three years. The demographics of the city haven't shifted in so short a period. The socioeconomic level of the population has risen steadily. The school budget has dramatically increased - most notably with an unprecedented override in 2002 - to the point where the budget is at a record high, despite an actual decline in the number of students.

Class size has only recently increased, but mostly at the high schools and only sporadically at the lower grade levels. Since the turnover rate in the school department has always been low, the teachers and principals are roughly the same. We still have the same School Committee, superintendent and mayor.

So then, after eliminating any potential mitigating factors, what could possibly account for the steady decline in the sixth-grade math MCAS scores?

The only logical and remaining explanation is change that occurred in the Newton math curriculum itself - the subject matter of what is taught and how, what is emphasized and what is not, what has been omitted and what is new. In short, what has changed in the elementary and middle school math curriculum to have affected such a dramatic decline in the MCAS scores?

Answer: the new math curriculum, otherwise known as anti-racist multicultural math.

Between 1999 and 2001, under the direction of Superintendent Young and Assistant Superintendent Wyatt, the math curriculum was redesigned to emphasize "Newton's commitment to active anti-racist education" for the elementary and middle schools. This meant that no longer were division, multiplication, fractions and decimals the first priority for teaching math. For that matter, the teaching of math was no longer the first priority for math teachers, as indicated by the new curriculum guidelines, called benchmarks, which function as the primary instructional guide for teaching math in the Newton Public Schools.

In 2001 Mr. Young, Mrs. Wyatt and an assortment of other well-paid school administrators, defined the new number-one priority for teaching mathematics, as documented in the curriculum benchmarks, "Respect for Human Differences - students will live out the system wide core of 'Respect for Human Differences' by demonstrating anti-racist/anti-bias behaviors." It continues, "Students will: Consistently analyze their experiences and the curriculum for bias and discrimination; Take effective anti-bias action when bias or discrimination is identified; Work with people of different backgrounds and tell how the experience affected them; Demonstrate how their membership in different groups has advantages and disadvantages that affect how they see the world and the way they are perceived by others..." It goes on and on.

These are the most important priorities that the school department has determined for teaching math from grade one through eight, as documented in the Newton Public Schools Benchmarks.

Nowhere among the first priorities for the math curriculum guidelines is the actual teaching of math. That's a distant second. To Superintendent Young and his School Committee, mathematical problem-solving is of secondary importance to anti-racist/anti-bias math.

Meanwhile, the sixth-grade MCAS math scores keep going down. Yet the architects of this PC lunacy will sit there with a collective straight face and whine to us that they have no idea why these scores have declined since 2001.

It's interesting that the math curriculum guidelines for Weston, Wayland and Winchester are devoid of any mention of anti-racist math. But then again, those public schools have consistently ranked higher on the MCAS than Newton.

When a school department determines that ideology should take priority over academics, standardized test scores gradually decline and educational standards suffer. It doesn't happen overnight. It takes time for the decline to take its inevitable course.

And inevitable it was. Since 1999, coincidentally the year that Jeffrey Young became superintendent, our schools have plummeted from seventh to 35th in the overall state MCAS rankings. Thus, with the implementation of Mr. Young's ludicrous anti-racist/anti-bias math in 2001, the current dismal scores on the sixth-grade math MCAS should come as no surprise.

Tom Mountain can be reached at tmount117@hotmail.com.

Return to the NYC HOLD main page or to the News page or to the Letters and Testimony page.