Parents Skilled at Math Protest New Curriculum : Schools: Vocal minority, many in technical fields, deride ‘fuzzy’ teaching. But reformers call them elitist.


Here in the province of high test scores and even higher real estate prices, a bitter battle is raging over what is almost always a noncontroversial topic: math and how it should be taught.

Unlike education lightning rods such as sex education and school prayer, arithmetic and algebra and the teachers who teach them usually manage to stay out of the spotlight.

But in Palo Alto--and in similarly affluent, highly educated communities from La Jolla to Davis--equations, factoring, ratios and other mainstays of the math curriculum are the focus of a hot debate that is transforming staunch supporters of public education into vocal rebels.


A growing number of parents in such communities--many of them working scientists, engineers, computer experts and mathematicians--are arguing, often in heated exchanges via e-mail and the Internet, that reform-minded schools have dumbed down algebra and geometry, the first important math courses for college-bound students, in the interest of getting more students to stick with them.

Although surveys have found that Americans in general worry that schools are neglecting basic skills instruction, many of these parents--themselves highly skilled professionals--have a more specific concern: that nontraditional instruction will deny their children the math fundamentals they need to succeed in college and careers.

“We want math math classes and not math appreciation classes,” said Ze’ev Wurman, a software designer and parent who is part of the Palo Alto group pushing for a return to a traditional approach.

Math reforms that emphasize deep understanding over repetitive practice and thinking over calculating have been spreading in California classrooms for almost a decade. But only in the past few years have large numbers of middle and high schools scrapped traditional classes and replaced them with courses that reflect the reforms, unleashing concerns among some parents that their children’s progress is being stunted.

The parents raising such concerns are a small but vocal minority. But because of their impressive academic and technical backgrounds--as well as their access to powerful communication tools such as e-mail and the Internet--their influence is greater than their numbers and is spreading statewide.

Critics deriding changes in the math curriculum as “new new math” or “fuzzy math” keep up with the issue by tapping into the Palo Alto group’s site on the World Wide Web--a kind of bulletin board where research articles, polemics and announcements are posted.


They track math reform in Oregon, New York, Georgia and other states on their computers. Via e-mail, they trade stories of how “guess and check” and working in small groups to solve problems--two mainstays of reformed classrooms--are replacing number crunching and individual effort.

A Southern California network of parents with members in Torrance, Escondido, San Diego and elsewhere is planning a computer letter-writing campaign to press the state Department of Education to follow through on a math task force’s recommendation that the math curriculum be revised to reemphasize computation and raise student test scores.

“This trend of getting away from algebra and solving equations and moving to a more touchy-feely, guess-and-check method because they are trying to accommodate different learning styles is nonsense,” said Erica McKeown, a San Diego parent with a math degree who is tutoring children in geometry at the middle school that her 13-year-old twins attend. “It’s a nightmare for anyone who cares about numbers.”

The Concerned Parents of Torrance, which gathered 1,000 signatures on a petition to force the school district there to offer parents a traditional alternative, has started to make its mark on the district, backing two newcomers who won seats in November on the Board of Education.

Educators “are making such radical changes that parents need to really start paying attention and the district really needs to include them . . . because it is public education and we are the public,” said Marla Armstrong, a Torrance parent and teacher who was a leader of the opposition group.

The theory behind the new teaching methods, which also is shaping science and reading instruction, is called constructivism and holds that we learn better by “constructing” knowledge from experience, rather than by simply being told something is true by a teacher.

So, for example, rather than learn how to plot the graph of an equation on a piece of paper, students stand at intervals along the yard lines of the school’s football field to learn the relationship between the points represented by the equation.

Educators say traditional methods used in the past left most students confused or bored and contributed to the nation’s poor showing in international math comparisons.

Under the new approach, teachers spend little time lecturing in front of the class. Some of the reform curricula specifically direct teachers to avoid answering students’ questions and respond instead with questions themselves, to coax students to think more deeply about the problem.

Stanford education professor David Tyack, who has written extensively about the history of education and education reform, said many such progressive reforms have been scuttled by opposition from parents who were “not involved and informed and contributing along the way.”

But in the Palo Alto situation, he said, “it’s fascinating to see that the parents who are objecting are not people who don’t understand the newest math. It’s people who feel they understand it better than the teachers.”

Math educators acknowledge that only recently have they begun trying to explain the reforms to parents. So it is not surprising that the new courses have sparked opposition.

“Material a good Algebra I teacher introduces with a few key examples, a rule and some directed homework problems in one day can take up to a week” in the new courses, said Michael McKeown, a molecular biologist and San Diego parent who is on the faculty of the Salk Institute.

The “very strong possibility” is that “top students will become exasperated at the slowness and stupidity of the process and . . . middle and bottom students never are given the chance to learn and apply a clearly given principle,” he said.

Moreover, he contends, certain time-honored elements of the algebra curriculum--such as factoring equations and the simplification of radical expressions--are left out.

But as such sentiments have spread, so too have concerns about the motives and the methods of some parent opponents. Some math educators say the parent-critics are academic elitists, who want to preserve a system that has served the needs of only the top rung of students.

Indeed, the controversy in Palo Alto arose when math teachers began discussing doing away with the seventh-grade honors track at one of the two middle schools there.

“What they feel is that math for all can’t be good enough for their child, it has to be separate or it’s no good,” said Cathy Humphreys, who had been a highly regarded math supervisor at Palo Alto’s Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School. “It’s all based on the fear that their kids aren’t going to be as competitive as they were in college.”

Humphreys was one of the architects of the reform math curriculum at her school, which registered the second-highest score in the state on the math portion of the state’s California Learning Assessment System exam in 1994. But that was not good enough for critics, who complained that another test showed a nearly 30-point drop in basic skills.

The school district responded to that drop with what administrators called a “course correction” to make sure all the basics were attended to. But the parents weren’t satisfied and continued complaining to Humphreys and Gary Tsuruda, another Palo Alto math teacher who has won national honors for his teaching. The two teachers’ methods were attacked in angry phone calls, at public meetings and in articles in the local newspapers.

Humphreys wound up taking an unpaid stress leave because of the controversy. “I needed to get out of there,” she said. “I was no longer a teacher, I was sort of a lightning rod for all of the changes going on . . . and that’s not me.”

A veteran of 25 years in the classroom, Humphreys is now teaching a course at Stanford, taking graduate classes and trying to decide whether to return to her job in Palo Alto.

To counter the criticism, another group of parents, which also includes Stanford professors, physicians and engineers, formed last spring, calling itself Parents and Teachers for a Balanced Math Program. The group embraces calculation skills but also favors, as do math reformers, an emphasis on thinking and writing about math.

Kathy Durham, parent of a Jordan Middle School eighth-grader who is thriving in one of the new-style math classes, helped found the group. She says the critics are in the minority--demonstrated by the fact that school board candidates they backed were defeated in November.

She said it is not surprising that the new approach has caused controversy, because it is unfamiliar.

“But what is of concern . . . is when parents hold up what is familiar and say it is sacred,” she said. “I firmly believe that when the evidence is in, all these terms like ‘dumbed-down math’ will be looked at as very ill-informed.”

Now, the battle in Palo Alto is a standoff. The group of critics, which goes by the name Honest Open Logical Debate, or HOLD, wants traditional math courses offered at both middle schools. It appears that, at least for now, the district is unlikely to comply.

But across the state, the issue is very much up in the air. In September, a task force appointed by state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin called for a return to some elements of the traditional approach, to reflect a better balance between teaching students to think about math and teaching them to crunch numbers.

The State Board of Education earlier this month took the task force recommendation further and ordered a rewrite of the state’s 1992 guidelines for math instruction to encourage teachers to focus more on teaching basic skills.

Meanwhile, the developers of one of the most widely used new courses, called College Prep Math, are about to publish data that seems to counter much of the criticism.

The distributors of the program, which was written at UC Davis, tested 8,200 students in algebra and geometry and compared the results of those of students who had been taught using the CPM method with those who had not. The study found that CPM students do as well as their peers on multiple choice questions, the kind common in traditional courses, but far better on open-ended word problems of the kind that CPM students get more exposure to.

Early indications also are that high-ability students, women and minorities who have taken a CPM class do better than their peers who have not.

“I understand where these parents are coming from,” said Tom Sallee, a UC Davis math professor who co-directs CPM. “I’ve got bright daughters and I don’t want some idiot screwing up their education.”

But, he said, “one thing I feel really good about is that every single piece of data says we’re not. We’re doing good, and my gut instinct is that we are doing the best for the brightest kids because they are learning more.”

Even so, the data are unlikely to quiet the growing ranks of concerned parents, and new-math proponents are stepping up their efforts to respond. CPM is issuing parent guidebooks to address common concerns. More schools are scheduling meetings with parents. Curriculum specialists are sitting down with critics.

And math educators and administrators are studying what went on in Palo Alto, to avoid a repeat of what has been a draining controversy that has sapped a great deal of parent enthusiasm for local schools.

In a demonstration of how the Palo Alto situation has assumed statewide importance, 150 people turned out for a meeting hosted earlier this month by the group critical of the district, which featured as speakers Gov. Pete Wilson’s top education advisor, Maureen DiMarco, former state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig and Henry Alder, a UC Davis math professor who has served on the State Board of Education.

Parents “are the strength of the district,” said Tsuruda, the Palo Alto math teacher who helped design the curriculum there, and who is often asked to speak at conferences about the controversy. “But you can’t meet everyone’s wishes, as you might wish, especially on an issue that seems to have polarized the community. That is unfortunate because it is getting in the way of moving the district forward.”

James Brown, Palo Alto’s superintendent, advised administrators in other districts not to take parents’ criticisms lightly.

“The discussion about the content of math is a serious and important one and there are strongly held beliefs and opinions,” he said. “Simply coming down on one side or the other and saying, ‘This is what we are going to do’ is not going to work in the long run.”