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Tribune: Back To Basics

    (Links added)

    Chicago Tribune
    September 25, 2006


    How About That: Back To Basics

    In recent years, any parent who has sat at the kitchen table with a child completing math homework has watched the pages grow fuzzier and fuzzier. The child busily begins to attack a math problem using a "new math" method. The parent looks on and sighs, wistful for the days when a student could arrive at an answer in a much more concrete and direct way.

    Such is the heart of the so-called math wars, the conflict between math traditionalists who stress the basics and those who push the looser "constructivist" approach. Is it better to teach the child basic math, along with rote memorization of, say, the multiplication table? Or, is it better to teach the child the relationship between numbers and allow her to develop an open-ended approach to problem solving?

    The answer, according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, is not one or the other, but both. In a recent report, "Curriculum Focal Points," the council expressed hope that the schools and teachers who develop math curricula will start to think more about the concepts they're teaching and what's important at every grade level.

    And, by all means, they hope teachers will re-emphasize the basics. Yes!

    The new report suggests basic skills for each level of school. For example, 6th graders should be very well versed in the multiplication table, long division, fractions and decimals. They should be able to connect ratio and rate to multiplication and division. They should be writing, interpreting and using mathematical expressions and equations.

    This report comes nearly 20 years after the influential council gave encouragement to fuzzy math. Nearly half the states took that advice and ran with it, integrating the council's findings into local curricula.

    Francis Fennell, the council's president, says the new report is not a set of standards. The council hopes the report will force a conversation about what should be important at each grade. "The states have curriculum frameworks that give hundreds of learning objectives to be covered in each grade," said Fennell, who came to Chicago to talk to educators about the report.

    The problem with so many objectives is that it's difficult to make sure students learn the most important math skills.

    Ever since a Trends in International Mathematics and Science study in 2003 found that Asian students surpassed American students on international tests, educators have been pondering how to boost the math skills of American kids. Children in Singapore focus intensely on basic multiplication, division and algebra before moving up to more sophisticated problems.

    Making sure that children understand the basics makes sense, and so does having clear standards and objectives by which to measure. (What doesn't make sense is what the Illinois State Board of Election has done: respond to poor pupil performance by lowering standards for 8th-grade math.)

    Most important: Teachers have to be qualified to teach math effectively and agile enough to employ the methods that work best for the individual student.

    There's nothing wrong with students honing their logical reasoning skills. But that shouldn't come at the expense of learning the basic building blocks of math.

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