Thursday, March 6, 2008

Politics and the Math Wars

Recent developments will probably only aggravate our already overly politicized math wars. An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal reports that the Bush-appointed National Mathematics Advisory Panel "is expected to urge the nation's teachers to promote 'quick and effortless' recall of arithmetic facts in early grades, mastery of fractions in middle school, and rigorous algebra in high school or even earlier."

That this panel was appointed by the Bush administration will be enough for some people to peremptorily dismiss its recommendations.  Many in the education establishment have long branded as "reactionary" any reforms that smack of drills, rote memorization, and back-to-basics--along with anyone who promotes such reforms (e.g., E.D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch, Charles Sykes).

Politics, of course, has no more business in math than in evolutionary biology. Our grade school math curricula should be devised and chosen by the following professionals and no one else:  

(1) Mathematics professors, who know better than anyone else which concepts students must master in order to do college-level math and science.
(2) Cognitive scientists specializing in math acquisition, who know better than anyone else how children learn math and which math skills people use in everyday life.  
(3) Our most successful grade school math teachers, who know better than anyone else which classroom teaching strategies work best.  

That's it.  

No curriculum consultants, no education professors, no math textbook publicists--unless they also happen to be mathematics professors, cognitive scientists (real ones who publish in cognitive science journals; not education journals), or former grade school math teachers with years of hands-on experience and outstanding success in the classroom.  

And, finally, no high-falutin' education philosophy pitting the right-brained "relational understanding," "real-life" problems, and "communicating about math" in peer groups against the abstract manipulation of symbols--all that left-brained stuff dismissed all too often as "mere calculation."

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