United States: Maths goes back to basics

19th December 1997 at 00:00
A bitter dispute over the direction of maths teaching in California, closely watched across the country, has ended firmly in favour of "back to basics". Students should learn their multiplication tables and long division, the State Board of Education decided, and be discouraged from using calculators.

The board's vote this month came after a near-revolt by parents in California and other western states against so-called "rain-forest maths", derided for teaching fuzzy problem-solving techniques. Conservative groups such as Mathematically Correct, based in San Diego, blamed the "new-new maths" for America's falling test scores.

Maths teaching has been a hot topic in California since results this March showing that more than half of 4th graders (typically aged 9-10) scored "below basic" on national tests, falling behind every state except Mississippi. Only a small proportion of Californian students take advanced maths classes.

One reason, it was suggested, was that California had led the nation in adopting a new maths curriculum recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989.

The NCTM shifted the emphasis from "computational skills" to an "integrated" approach intended to bring maths alive with games and blocks and teach problem-solving in real-life situations.

The result, critics now say, was to substitute touchy-feely concepts such as maths "empowerment" for the hard skills of arithmetic and algebra, a complaint that the board seems to have taken to heart. More than 40 states eventually followed the NCTM's recommendations, and California's about-face could have ripple effects across the country.

The board recommended, in laying down state-wide maths standards for the first time, that in grade 1, the year after kindergarten, children should learn to add and subtract to 20. By grade 3, they should have memorised multiplication tables for numbers between 1 and 10. In grade 5, they should learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide with decimals and negative numbers.

The board's 10-0 vote disguised a heated debate. Some members fought hard against a return to "old maths", arguing it turned students off with its dull number-crunching. But the "back to basics" lobby won the day, in particular with a ban on the use of calculators in all tests. The principle seemed clear: that learning by rote was painful but necessary.

The new standards will require that, at every grade, students learn to make "precise calculations" to reach a right answer. They will be widely influential in setting local school exams and shaping text-books, but are non-binding on the 1,000 school districts in the state.

Some areas continue to embrace the new approaches to maths. In Los Angeles, for example, a five-year programme currently under way embraces hands-on methods where students learn to multiply by drawing fruit in packing crates. It is intended to reach out, in particular, to minority students.

The debate over maths in California mirrors a national struggle over teaching, pitting traditionalists against reformists. In many American colleges, science professors are, reportedly, complaining that students are arriving without basic skills and need remedial classes to reach the required level.

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