Where tradition still counts

16th May 1997 at 01:00
United States. In a move symbolic of the struggle over mathematics teaching in American schools, an Arizona school district is offering parents alternative maths courses for their children.

Schools in Mesa, on the outskirts of the state capital, Phoenix, moved 18 months ago to adopt a new maths textbook. But in a public fight led by a local mother and newspaper columnist, a group of parents objected to its "touchy feely" approach, and demanded a return to traditional teaching.

The results were unusual. Most Mesa district pupils will attend classes using Secondary Math: an Integrated Approach, from the publisher Addison-Wesley. But where enough parents request it, their children will learn the more traditionalist approach in the old textbook from Heath Publishing Co.

Mirroring battles over approaches to mathematics in England and Australia, a bitter dispute has been raging among American mathematicians over the teaching of the subject at both schools and colleges.

In universities, the debate has focused on "reform calculus", where textbooks typically feature questions applying calculus to everyday subjects, such as cooking or the weather. Similar arguments have played out in schools over "integrated" approaches to algebra.

Critics of current teaching cite the United States' low ranking in international comparisons, and an historic drop in maths scores on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) for university entrance. They cite textbooks from the 1920s, and even school examinations from the 19th century, to demonstrate how far once-rigorous standards have fallen.

The state of California, shocked by students' low test scores and the widespread need for remedial maths teaching when they arrive at colleges, has recently begun to stress a return to "basic" methods of teaching in both English and maths.

The call for old-fashioned teaching of maths - with some demanding a return to multiplication tables, and limits on the use of calculators - mirrors the widespread return to phonics in reading.

In Arizona, local business professor Marianne Jennings, a mother of three, has led an attack on integrated methods that she says are only just reaching its schools. In her column in the Arizona Republic and other newspapers, and in Congress hearings, she has singled out the Addison-Wesley textbook, even though it is widely used in other parts of the US.

She calls it "rainforest algebra", with maths questions interwoven with excerpts from Maya Angelou's poetry, pictures of President Bill Clinton, and miniature lectures on the environment.

She cites as an example of her concerns a question that asks students to calculate a percentage based on the lyric from the Beatles' song Taxman: "That's one for you, 19 for me."

"We just started this as an experiment," she said. "We haven't had our first graduates, and California has, and that's where the results really became clear."

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