United States: Dumbing down by numbers

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
The volleys now fired at American schools by politicians, teachers and parents are so noisy and frequent it is sometimes hard to believe the 52 million children who went to school this year learned anything at all.

Out there in the classrooms teachers are still presumably struggling to inspire, cajole and otherwise persuade pupils to stay awake and do their homework. But in the political and public arena, education remains a hotly debated potato.

Early this year, in his State of the Union address, President Clinton promised to make education the central concern of his second four-year term. Last month a Republican Governors' meeting made it clear that its party sees education as a major issue in state elections in 1998.

In higher education, claims of a crisis have slackened with the improved economy, but in state schools, reformers play to a continued sense that something is amiss: that teachers are improperly trained, lazy children are classed as "learning disabled" and even the most basic education isn't happening.

In California, which sets the national scene, something akin to parental paranoia is developing over mathematics. The battleground is new guidelines being readied this winter. It highlights a broader national debate pitting new styles of "inventive" maths teaching against "traditional" methods.

Critics of "mathematical correctness" say its widespread adoption in schools is "dumbing" children by skipping the basics in favour of calculators and woolly "concepts".

Fights over maths teaching are nothing new. But the issue mirrors fears in other fields that well-meaning innovations, such as substituting "whole language" reading teaching for basic phonics instruction, may have short-changed a generation.

Bilingual teaching, where young children are taught in their own language first, is another source of criticism, and comes up for a public vote in California next year.

These curriculum issues have been sharpened by President Clinton's plan for national testing.

The tests have now been put up for study by an independent think-tank, but only seven states have so far agreed to use them, and Congress could still refuse funding.

Democrats say testing will stigmatise poor and minority children. On the Right, critics say Washington will use tests to write its own progressive curriculum.

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