To Congressman Sherwood Boehlert and
Members of the House Science Committee
By Susan Burklund
February 18, 2004
Dear Representative Boehlert and Members of the House Science Committee:
I am writing to strongly urge you to support the proposal to move The Math and Science Partnership funds from the EHR (Education and Human Resources) division of the NSF to the US Department of Education.
I offer the perspective of a parent whose child spent 6 years in NYC's District 2 which has often been cited as an example of the great success of constructivist math programs. I know first-hand the disastrous results of these programs which the NSF funds and supports. Our personal experience should be noted as it mirrors that of far too many District 2 parents whose children were subjected to these radical and very damaging math programs.
My son's school became a site-school for TERC math in 1996. My child entered school proficient in math but by third grade his skills were deteriorating as his frustration level rose. Homework involved no computation, was all word-based and a child who could calculate complex addition and subtraction 3 years earlier was no longer sure what 8 plus 13 were.
Although constructivists claim that children are encouraged to find their own solutions, anything that smacks of traditional computation is rapidly discouraged. After sitting for 40 minutes one day, while the class struggled to solve 21 plus 9, my son said he knew a very fast way. He proceeded to use traditional place value and carrying and solved the problem in 2 minutes. The children were amazed and asked him to show them how he did that, the teacher said, "We don't do math that way, sit down."
I attended countless meetings with the District Math Developers where parents, many of whom were professors and/or professionals in math fields, were treated with disrespect and disdain if they voiced concerns over these programs. When I began to realize how many parents in our District were resorting to tutoring and that our experience and concerns were not unique, I began to look more closely at what was happening.
Do not be deceived by tales of great success. NSF consistently awarded research grants to people with vested interests. Lucy West, head of District 2 math development, was the recipient of NSF grants, to research the success of the very program she proposed and was being paid by the city to put in place. This was a huge conflict of interest. It came as no surprise when her final research papers declared the whole process a huge success, as did other constructivist math proponents who were "studying" our District and school with the support of NSF funding.
My own research led me to conclude that this was all wishful thinking on the part of these "researchers." Most telling was the progressive drop in students performing at Level 4 (the highest level) on the city-wide tests, culminating in a plunge of over 50% the year my son took the 4th-grade test.
Considering the amounts of taxpayer's money spent on these studies, it is criminal that this huge drop in higher achieving children's scores has not even been mentioned or noted in any NSF-founded research I have seen. In fact, it is now difficult to find any figures for NYC test scores that do not show Levels 3 and 4 combined, in effect, hiding this alarming fact.
In the fall of 2000, my child took the ISEE test (a test used for application to private schools). A public school, Level 4 "top 2 or 3 in his class of 130 children" math student placed mid-range. I was told by private school directors that this was consistent with what they were seeing with District 2 children.
Please remember that the TERC program moves very slowly as the children are all "finding their own solutions" without the benefit of using time-proven methods. When I looked at the ISEE test prep materials, I realized my child was almost 2 years behind ISEE standards for grade level and helped him catch up as much as possible, otherwise his score would have been even lower.
We applied to both private and public middle schools. At the public middle school orientation (a test and interview-in school) we found out that a 6th grade math assignment had been to "Write About Your Favorite Number."
We moved our child to private school and I assure you this was not an easy decision. I come from a family of public school teachers, including a grandmother who began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Oregon while still in her teens. I never imaged that my child would not attend public school. So this was a move that was done at great cost, both financially and personally, but we felt the cost to our child's future was greater if he continued in these worthless programs.
After two years with a traditional substantive math curriculum, my child now scores in the 99th percentile nationally on a test that is similar to the ISEE. But more importantly, math is interesting again, it makes sense.
I do not believe that testing is the end-all, be-all, but our personal experience with these NSF-supported math programs is telling. If if this is what happens to children with a high level of math aptitude, what will happen to those who have average math ability or those who struggle with basics?
It is critical that the Partnership Grant money be moved from the NSF so that a more balanced, less partisan approach to awarding of research grants and a more thoughtful, critical look at math education in this country begin immediately. Every child who loses the ability or interest to do math is a loss for our society and our country's future.
If you feel compelled to oppose this proposal, I ask only one thing. Sit down this very minute, take pen in hand, and "Write About Your Favorite Number."
Then IF you are able to complete the task, please explain how that experience will help a child do pre-Algebra so that they can move on to Algebra and Calculus, and then perhaps the Space Program or computer field or medicine or one of the multitudes of fields that require a good grasp of mathematics.
If you cannot do this, you cannot, in good conscience, oppose this proposal.
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