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New-new math doesn't compute correctly

Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Sunday's edition of the Chicago Tribune:

One plus one may equal two.

Or about two.

Maybe even an estimated three.

It all depends on what style of math you fancy: Old math, new math, or now, new-new math, the latest entrant into the decades-old math wars, one that de-emphasizes rote memorization in favor of estimations and - Holy Archimedes! - calculators.

Under ``new-new math,'' students are taught multiple ways to arrive at math solutions, but without the traditional encumbrances of worksheets or textbooks. That way, the thinking goes, they'll come to understand underlying principles of math, and will choose which method works best for them.

So much for carrying the 1's or figuring out the remainder.

Advocates of the new-new method stress that students still are expected to be familiar with the fundamentals of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And indeed, some of the principles sound like good sense. For instance, fourth-graders learn relationships between numbers, so that if they know 6 times 8 equals 48, they also know that 60 times 80 equals 4,800.

But then the stated program goals drift off into New Age-sounding territory in which students are ``linking past experience to new concepts; sharing ideas; developing concept readiness through hands-on exploration.'' One second-grade exercise has students thinking up a lunch, drawing it on paper and cutting out the foods, all in the name of learning division.

It's no wonder 200 mathematicians and scientists fumed publicly last fall after the U.S. Department of Education officially endorsed 10 new-new math programs for kindergarten through 12 grades. Critics started calling the new programs names like ``New-New Mush-Mush Math,'' ``Algebra Lite'' and ``Placebo Math.''

New-new math programs such as Everyday Mathematics, designed by the University of Chicago, offer as proof of effectiveness the fact that 12 of the 25 top-scoring Chicago-area schools on last year's third-grade Illinois Standards Achievement Test used its method - along with 1.5 million students nationwide. But then there's that pesky rule of advanced statistics that says correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation.

If old style math, the ``drill-and-kill'' kind, was stupefying students into a lifelong aversion to math, then new-new math, with its engaging word problems and hands-on exercises, may hold some promise at least in keeping young peoples' attention. Or, it may confuse them to such a degree that while they'll have fun playing ``Frac-Tac-Toe'' and ``How Would You Spend a Million Dollars,'' when they grow up they won't be able to figure out a restaurant tip.

Old, old, old math guy Pythagoras had it right: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.



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