Math educators find common denominators
December 23, 2004
WASHINGTON – Confused by the latest “good news-bad news” headlines about how U.S. students compare in math with their peers in foreign lands? Wondering whether the math program at your child’s school is teaching addition better than another program might?
You aren’t alone. Many parents are asking these questions and finding that, when it comes to math, the educational landscape in the United States can be maddeningly complicated.
Math programs that give students different ways to answer basic problems are beloved by some teachers, while others scoff and label the programs “fuzzy math.” Research reports are issued, then debunked by critics. And the long-running “math wars,” pitting traditionalists against reformers, are at high pitch.
Any large-scale meeting of the minds about the best way to teach the subject, educators and mathematicians say, is nowhere near – in part, because the country is so large and education decisions are locally driven.
This month’s release of international comparisons of math performance highlighted the confusion. One study showed that U.S. eighth-graders made significant gains compared with their counterparts worldwide. Yet another recent study suggested the opposite of progress – that 15-year-olds in the United States lag behind their peers in most other leading industrialized nations.
Some mathematicians and educators even disagree on whether international comparisons are valid. R. James Milgram, a Stanford University mathematician, said yes; Jeremy Kilpatrick, a University of Georgia professor, said different cultures and educational systems skew the results.
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There may be some room for hope of a truce in the math wars, according to Milgram and Kilpatrick, both of whom attended a “peace summit” designed to see whether common ground could be found.
Richard Schaar, a mathematician and senior vice president of Texas Instruments Inc., wooed the two scholars, plus three other figures in math education, to Washington early this month. Also attending was Harvard University Professor Wilfried Schmid, who, like Milgram, criticizes “reform” math programs for failing to teaching children the fundamentals.
To the surprise of all, there was more agreement than they had imagined, several participants said, suggesting that they may be moving toward a “centrist position.”