The Center for Public School Renewal
NOTE: Published in slightly different form as"'Keep the Faith,' Math Teachers" by Education Week, 2/17/93.
Chester Finn's recent article--"What If Those Math Standards Are Wrong?" (Education Week, 1/20/93)--is certain to irritate many of my colleagues in mathematics education.
Some will be bothered by Finn's references to NCTM "math sophisticates" and "the NCTM and its ilk," which might be interpreted as pejorative descriptions. Such references, we may imagine, can be explained by Mr. Finn's lingering animosities over difficulties with his 4th grade math teacher.
Others will be bothered by Mr. Finn's apparent lack of knowledge about the content of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (1989) and its Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics (1991). For example,
Still other mathematics educators will be concerned by the shallowness of Mr. Finn's view of what mathematics is. He speaks about the satisfaction that students "get from knowing things; precise, definite things that they know they know" (such as 5 X 11 = 55). Wouldn't students get satisfaction from knowing that they have command of the strategies that make them successful problem solvers? Wouldn't students get satisfaction from understanding mathematics as the science of patterns, in the same way we expect them to find satisfaction in knowing their rights as citizens, how to communicate effectively, or how to express themselves creatively?
To all these irritations I say to my colleagues, "Keep the faith, baby."
Its natural for conservative thinkers to hearken back to the good old days. The depth of Finn's antediluvian thought is revealed in his endorsement of Engelmann's complaint that problem-solving is the cause of student's not knowing long division! This is the age of computers and calculators isn't it?
Finn's concerns about the NCTM Standards are perfectly normal to those conservative educators who honor the lower-order thinking skills embodied in such programs as Hirsch's "core knowledge" proposal. It's a simplistic strategy. One buries one's head in the sand of the past and thus avoids the responsibility for estimating what kind of education students might need to meet the future. In this way, one also avoids taking any steps to change the traditional system into something likely to be more useful.
There's another thing to keep in mind about conservatives--teaching thinking skills and problem-solving strategies to a wider-than-usual range of students scares the bejesus out of them. If such an effort succeeds, it might destabilize the current social order a bit, which really makes conservatives nervous.
My career as a mathematics teacher began at the height of the "new math" era in the early 60's, and I agree with Finn that the Standards published in 1989 bear some resemblance to the old "new math." To which I say, "It's about time!"
This time, we need to stay the course.