Monday, March 22, 2004


The consequences of widespread dumbed-down math instruction in California's K-12 schools are now showing up in colleges and the workplace, and the same problems are coming Nebraska's way. That's because so many Nebraska schools adopted California-style ''whole math'' textbooks a decade or so ago.

Also known as ''fuzzy math'' and ''rainforest math,'' the dumbed-down curriculum is in place in the Omaha Public Schools, Westside Community Schools, Millard Public Schools, Lincoln Public Schools and most other public-school districts. This math curriculum is characterized by fewer repetitions of problems, more group work, more guesswork, more illustrations and less challenge.

Those districts also give their students the same standardized tests as are given in California and other places where ''whole math'' is in place. That's because the curriculum is closely aligned to the tests, which increases the chances that the students will do ''well'' and look good on paper.

Therefore, if Nebraska students score relatively well on the standardized tests they're now taking, it doesn't mean they’re doing well in math -- just prepared for the tests. If they were to take a standardized test based on the grade-level math skills of a traditional math textbook such as Saxon Math, or perhaps a test from a generation ago when math instruction was more rigorous, they would most likely do much, much worse.

According to the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (www.pacificresearch.org), even though California is noted for its high-tech industries, the pipeline for people to fill those jobs is shifting to other countries, especially Asia, because California high-school graduates can't do the math any more. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer California college students are graduating with majors in mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences, again because of a lack of a foundation that should have been laid in public school.

Pacific Research Institute also reports that California school districts are now pleading with the state to waive the algebra requirement for high-school seniors to graduate this year. Judy Pinegar, manager of waivers at the state Department of Education, says the number of districts asking the state for waivers ''is increasing algebraically'' and that the department is ''getting tons of calls,'' according to the Pacific Research Institute report. State lawmakers will likely introduce legislation to postpone the algebra requirement for at least one year.

Pacific Research Institute's Lance T. Izumi reports that the state's retreat on algebra comes on top of its decision to reduce the difficulty of the math portion of the high-school exit exam, which students in the class of 2006 have to pass in order to graduate. Students no longer have to calculate the lower quartile, median and maximum of a data set. Instead, the number of questions asking students to calculate averages, a sixth-grade skill, increased.

Nebraskans ought to be watching for this trend, and resist the plea by educators to allow ''applied math'' and other dumbed-down alternatives to enable older students to bypass algebra, geometry and other grade-level math courses.

It would be helpful to chart how many students in your high school have passed the Advanced Placement Calculus exams over the past 10 years. If the number is tiny, or falling, you can expect to find the reason by examining the K-12 curriculum . . . and what bricks are missing from a solid math foundation.

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