Niki's Place

Public Education and Mathematics Instruction
Require All Americans to Speak Up

By Nakonia (Niki) Hayes

Public education is an issue that has many individuals disconnected from it for a variety of reasons. Yet, it still touches all students whether they are inside and outside of the public system. For that reason there is a desperate need for a “critical mass” of Americans to become active in all education issues, especially those of public schools.

This is particularly true in the study of mathematics, the language of science and logical thinking, because it has been a general disaster in America for 50 years. One person who encouraged the “mommas and daddies” to rise up against the silly and nonsensical mathematics lessons that began in the 1960’s as “New Math” was John Saxon. He was a military hero with three engineering degrees who became a junior college algebra teacher in Oklahoma after he retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1970. Most of his night-class students were deficient in their math skills but he also realized they were simply tired after working all day and caring for young families. To help them learn little bits at a time as they did their homework, he created worksheets with concepts broken into small pieces with a review exercise included in each assignment. Being a plain-spoken man who insisted on clarity above all else, he called it “incremental development with continual review.”

It worked so well that John decided such basic algebra deficiencies could, and should, be resolved before students entered college. He took his worksheets, which had turned into a manuscript, to New York City and looked for a publisher. Six of them rebuffed him because he wasn’t a “committee of experts.” It didn’t matter that he had taught engineering for five years at the U.S. Air Force Academy after actually using mathematics in the “real world” as a combat pilot in Korea and then as a test pilot.

So, John went home to Norman, OK, and published his first algebra textbook in 1981 after borrowing from family members and mortgaging his home in order to pull together $80,000. The story of John’s success—and his anger about the belittling by the “big boys” who so easily affect children’s education— became legendary in thousands of news articles. When he died in 1996, Saxon Publishers had sales that year of $27 million. Although testimonials to his program filled the company’s files, the math establishment had grown to despise him. He, in turn, continued to lose respect for them and their programs.

Today, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the organization that most hated John Saxon, is jockeying for a new leadership role in public classrooms. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has support from 48 states for his proposal to draft national standards for mathematics and reading. (Only Texas and Alaska are resisting.) If the NCTM gets to run the math program, its supporters will continue to spin their mantra that traditional mathematics is a “white man’s discipline.” That is, the new standards can still be taught with the NCTM ideology that girls and minorities (accept Asians) learn “inductively” while white boys (and Asians) learn “deductively.” They insist that girls and minorities need lots of open-ended story-telling with no right or wrong answers, hands-on activities, and egalitarian-centered curricula. If boys (and Asians) need the normal linear (step-by-step) progression of learning analytically, as has been used for 2,000 years in mathematics by diverse cultures around the world, but disdained by the NCTM reformists, the boys will somehow have to pick that up on their own. John called this racist and sexist.

The results of this reformist ideology are that few students—boys or girls, white or minority—are able to transcend into higher math or science studies today. Seventy percent of community college and up to 40 percent of four-year college students must take remedial math as freshmen. In 2004, the National Public Radio reported that private tutoring had become a $4 billion business. The data thus prove that the leadership of the mathematics “establishment” has been a debacle for America.

Why should non-public-school adults care about the new standards or who’s in charge of them? Primarily, traditionally-trained students who have been taught classical programs of math, English, science and history will be working alongside an overwhelming number of employees who come from this dysfunctional public system. Entrepreneurs and employers may choose to locate to a third world country that has had its young people scoring at the top of international math assessments for years. This scenario will impact job relationships and opportunities for all Americans, no matter where they were educated.

To address the problems, consumers of education should start by demanding a two-track system within public schools—one traditional and one reform. (This can be done even if administrators say it can’t.) The results will speak for themselves. Which one will show improved benchmark tests, increased enrollment in higher math and science courses, and higher college entrance scores—without supplementation of basic skills and private tutoring? Parents should push for accountability that will be truly felt by those in charge: If students must be tutored privately or enroll in remedial college classes because of poor curriculum materials and/or instruction, their school districts must pay for the costs. Americans must also stop saying, especially in front of children and with no hint of embarrassment, “I’m just not good in math.” This is not heard from people in other countries, even among the most poverty-ridden nations. It’s time to stop making excuses for a personal, poor math performance in mathematics and ensure that children will not carry on the tradition.

Remember that everyone who pays taxes is a stakeholder in the public system. Anyone who connects with a child of the system for any reason has a duty and a right to voice concerns and solutions. That means organizations that represent homeschooling families, private schools, and charter schools need to write guest editorials and letters to the editors and speak to civic groups while pushing hard for choice both within public education and outside of it. Not to do so means long-standing powerbrokers will continue to make decisions that are far too often based on adult issues, rather than children’s needs.

For more information on this issue, go to Readers will be given explanations and talking points to help defend the rights of students who need real mathematics education in America.
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