Local Schools to Study Whether Math -- Topics = Better Instruction

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Advocates of new math and old math, back-to-basics math and "fuzzy" math might be shelving their differences to collectively focus on what many consider a more pressing problem: too much math.

Maryland math leaders meet today -- and D.C. math educators gather tomorrow -- to discuss Curriculum Focal Points, a new document from the influential National Council of Teachers of Mathematics that could profoundly influence math instruction in the region and nationwide.

It says the typical state math curriculum runs a mile wide and an inch deep, resulting in students being introduced to too many concepts but mastering too few, and urges educators to slim down those lessons.

Some scholars say the American approach to math instruction has allowed students to fall behind those in Singapore, Japan and a dozen other nations. In most states, they say, the math curriculum has swelled into a thick catalogue of skills that students are supposed to master to attain "proficiency" under the federal No Child Left Behind mandate.

The report urges teachers to focus on three broad concepts in each grade and on a few key subjects -- including the base-10 number system, fractions, decimals, geometry and algebra -- that form the core of math education in higher-achieving nations. Some are calling Focal Points the most significant publication in the field since the 1980s.

R. James Milgram, a Stanford University math professor who is among the harshest critics of U.S. math instruction, said the 41-page report aligns teaching "with what is being done with unbelievable success" in other countries. The curriculum would teach a few topics intensely and have students master them and move on rather than teach many topics briefly and repeatedly over several years.

In the fourth grade, for example, Focal Points trims the list to three essential skills: multiplication and division; decimals; and two-dimensional shapes.

Virginia lists 41 "learning expectations" for fourth-grade math students in its statewide Standards of Learning. Maryland lists 67 in its Voluntary State Curriculum. The District has 45 standards.

To meet states' goals, some teachers feel compelled to teach a different topic nearly every day. "And math wasn't meant to be taught that way," said Jonathan Wray, a Howard County math leader who is president-elect of the Maryland Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Textbooks have ballooned as publishers have tried to include hundreds of overlapping standards from every state.

"I don't see any reason for my grandson, who's soon to be in third grade, to be carting home a 738-page book," said Francis "Skip" Fennell, president of the national math teachers association and an education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md.

Maryland is one of at least 10 states mobilizing to discuss, and possibly adopt, the guidelines, Fennell said. The state math curriculum is up for revision in 2009. To meet that deadline, educators will have to start work now, said Donna Watts, Maryland math coordinator.

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