Board of Education Meeting of April 26, 2005
by Ralph A. Raimi
My name is Ralph Raimi; I am Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Rochester. I have been a professor there since 1952 and retired in 1995.
Since then I have been studying and writing about the episode in school math education known as "The New Math", a period mainly within the 1960s, but in the course of my investigations I became aware of a more recent so-called reform effort that has been going on in this for about 15 years now.
This reform is the invention of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics -- usually called "the NCTM" for short. NCTM has somehow captured an education division of the National Science Foundation, and has used generous funding in the many millions of dollars for its new programs of curriculum change and teacher education. Our country is generous about education and has been willing to pour money into anything with "education" in its title. Unfortunately, the activities of NCTM have been very much in the direction of non-education, and it has been terribly successful in recent years. The "math-science partnership" of "professional development" of the teaching of math in Penfield is part of a two million dollar project which is only one of many across the country, all of which seek to impose the NCTM vision of mathematics education on the nation's schools.
The backbone of these projects is any one of a few textbook series composed -- also with federal subsidy -- during the early 1990s. Once written and polished up, these programs were licensed to commercial publishers. Anyone with common sense wouldn't buy them, once he got a good look at their pretentious lack of content, and saw their price, too. But the market doesn't rule here, for the federal subsidies extend to propagating the use of these so-called reform textbooks as an integral part of the programs allegedly designed for teacher education and research. These package programs, which apply to a cluster of school districts, come with irresistible advance advertising, and are next to impossible to dislodge even when the districts find they have made a terrible mistake in agreeing to be part of it.
Penfield is one of the objects of one of these grants. Along with their training in progressivist education (called "constructivist", actually), Penfield gets the programs that are now crippling your children's mathematical future in the name of equity, of child-centeredness, of all that is generous and kind.
In five minutes it is not easy to explain what is so devastating about the TERC Investigations, the Connected Math Program, or the Core-Plus high school program, but I should at least characterize them with the time I do have: These programs do not seek to instruct; instruction is bad, while discovery is good. What children can discover by themselves will stay with them, and be meaningful. But since it has taken mankind several thousand years to arrive at today's understanding of the decimal system and the algebra of fractions, one can expect children to be a bit slow in discovering it all. The cure for that, in the estimation of the authors of these programs, is to wipe out most of it, to reduce the curriculum to what children can discover. And that's not enough.
I will leave with you a sample of a 5th grade problem in one of the TERC Investigations books, to be compared with a 5th grade problem in the series used in Singapore. You will be able to see at a glance why Singapore scored at the top of all the international comparisons (by examinations given worldwide to a long list of countries) and the United States at about the median for the 4th grade, well below the median for the 8th grade, and practically at the bottom for Grade 12.
The Singapore example shows that it can be done. American educational leaders are not learning from it; they can think of no response to the national failure but to dumb down the curriculum so that everyone succeeds. This works only as long as any other form of inflation; inflation will increase the paycheck but will not make us prosperous. What is being taught in mathematics in Penfield is simply not enough. It would not have been enough in 1900, let alone today. Calling it "reform" and progressive won't do.
Every mathematician I know, and I know them across the country, is shocked and horrified when he first sees these books, though most mathematicians are, unless their own children get hit by them, unaware of this entire phenomenon. Once made aware, a mathematician or scientist can teach his own child, and survive. Other people cannot.
There are ways out of this terrible experiment, there are good books and programs on the market, there are fine teachers with experience and skill. But the way out will take public initiative; you cannot leave it to today's so-called experts in education.
Ralph A. Raimi
Department. of Mathematics
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
For more about the Penfield, NY, Mathematics curriculum controversy please visit Parents Concerned With Penfield's Math Programs and see the NYC HOLD summary page Controversy over Mathematics in Penfield, NY, Public Schools.
Return to the New York City HOLD main page, the NYC HOLD News page, or the NYC HOLD Letters and Testimony page.