2005-03-24 / Front Page
CVUSD math curriculum criticized
Part one of two
By Michelle Knight
Part one of two
Jo Anne Cobasko and Richard Zisko asked the Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) Board of Education earlier this month to offer parents an alternative to Everyday Mathematics (EM), the district’s arithmetic program for grades K-6.
Cobasko and Zisko’s children shared a classroom at Aspen Elementary School in Thousand Oaks until last October, when Cobasko put her son in private school.
She became disillusioned with EM after her son’s teacher said he didn’t show advanced math skills in class. Cobasko was puzzled because she’d been working with her son in math years before he started first grade.
"Which made me question what was going on in math," Cobasko said. "I did a Google search on Everyday Math and I started to shake."
She began telling other parents what she’d found on the Internet. Richard Zisko was one of them. They both did more research and were worried by what they found.
CVUSD had to apply for a waiver from the state board of education to get funding for EM because the program isn’t among those it sanctions.
After a year of testing in classrooms, the district adopted Everyday Mathematics—part of the "whole math" movement, also called fuzzy, reform or new-new math—as its official program for grades K-5 in 2002. Sixth grade was added the following year.
David Klein, a math professor at Cal State Northridge (CSUN), is vehemently opposed to programs such as EM. He and several other math professors wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley in 1999 urging him to remove the labels "promising" and "exemplary" the department had assigned to 10 math programs, including EM. The letter was signed by more than 200 university math professors, including department heads at Stanford, Harvard and Yale, and seven Nobel laureates and winners of the Fields Medal, the highest award in mathematics.
The following year, Klein testified before Congress regarding the endorsement. He said the ten programs and their textbooks were given the "promising" and "exemplary" labels based on a report by a panel of education experts, some of whom had obvious conflicts of interest since they were advisors and co-authors of the very books they were endorsing.
Klein said in a later report that EM has three major weaknesses. The program fails to satisfy most of the math standards for third grade. It doesn’t require—contrary to California’s board of education recommendations—that first-graders memorize basic addition and multiplication facts, something Klein said children will pay for in later grades. And Everyday Mathematics stresses reliance on calculators as early as kindergarten, which could cost children a grasp of number sense.
Klein said that as a result of whole math programs such as EM, CSUN and other colleges must offer entering freshmen remedial math classes at a level as low as third grade. He said he’s seen, for instance, calculus students who can’t add fractions.
"This is kind of the lost generation, ruined by these liberal-minded policies," Klein said. "The truth of the matter is it’s just a crummy program."
Stanford math Professor R. James Milgram although less critical, said the district is "taking a huge risk" with EM. Among whole math programs, EM is the best, he said, but teaching the program correctly would demand someone who’s majored in math at a top university.
"It just doesn’t work for typical teachers," he said.
According to Milgram, the root of the problem is that universities, which produce the nations’ teachers, generally are disconnected from professional mathematicians and scientists.
"They don’t listen to us because we’re not the ones they’re educated by," he said.
But the U.S. government is listening, because the stakes in this math war are high. The nation’s economic future hangs in the balance: the U.S. is producing less of the world’s technology and innovative products when compared to other developed countries, Milgram said. He’s part of a newly formed national board that advises Congress on such matters and supervises the Institute of Education Sciences, which provides information to the Department of Education on the effectiveness of programs and practices that improve academic achievement.
"There’s concern in Washington that we’re just not matching up," said Milgram.
As for the department calling EM "promising," Milgram said that label was withdrawn a couple of years ago.
"District after district, the outcome is abysmal," he said of math programs such as EM.
Recently, Cobasko sent Milgram a video of EM being taught in a CVUSD classroom. "From looking at the video," Milgram said, "the teachers in your district are not qualified to teach EM."
Milgram emphasized that the fault lies not with the teachers but in the foundation of their math education.
"The teaching of mathematics and science in this country has been extremely poor for a long time," Milgram said.
Part two will look at proponents of the of Everyday Math program.