Politically Correct Math=Innumerate Children
by Wendy McElroy

"A. If math were a color, it would be __, because __. B. If it were a food, it would be __, because __. C. If it were weather, it would be __, because __."

So read three questions in a fifth grade worksheet that represents the New-New or Whole Math being taught in schools across the U.S. Children write essays about math and use artwork to portray it, yet they do not necessarily learn the basic skills, such as algebra, that open doors to careers in engineering and other hard sciences. From kindergarten, children are encouraged to use calculators and computers to solve the simplest problems -- e.g. divide 200 by 2 -- rather than learning basic skills like addition and multiplication.

In October 1999, the U.S. Department of Education released a report to 16,000 school districts endorsing the use of New-New Math. A Jan. 4 editorial in the Wall Street Journal reported, "Within weeks of the Education Department findings, 200 mathematicians and scientists, including four Nobel Prize recipients and two winners of a prestigious math prize, the Fields Medal, published a letter in the Washington Post deploring the reforms."

The Open Letter to U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley occasioned a congressional hearing. The main concern expressed by experts and parents is that the public school system is producing children who are innumerate as well as illiterate. As Frank B. Allen, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Elmhurst College explains, "[S]tudents must know the mathematics before they can apply it.... To expect them to learn mathematics in the process of applying it is preposterous. It is like trying to teach people to play water polo before they know how to swim."

This is a valid concern, but my focus is a bit different. New-New Math is based on an ideological approach that is profoundly anti-individual. One of the ideas upon which this philosophy of education is based is 'constructivism' -- the notion that learning is discovered, not taught. Translated into the reality of classrooms, this means that grade school children discover the rules of multiplication and subtraction by themselves without the tyranny of "teacher-imposed rules." The emphasis is on the process rather than upon skills or accurate knowledge.

How is this anti-individual? It restricts, rather than encourages, a child's ability to rise as high as his or her merit. Studies, such as the
one conducted by Wayne State University Math Professor, Gregory F. Bachelis, reveal the obstacles that New-New Math has placed in front of students who aspire to higher education. Namely, students are trying to take college placement tests without the benefit of basic math skills like algebra and geometry.

Two other concepts accompany Constructivism: Cooperative Learning -- the notion that learning should be a group effort and not an individual or competitive one. And Cooperative Assessment by which the performance of groups, as opposed to individuals, is rated. The argument for this approach runs: the real world involves cooperation among groups of people, so students should be socialized to cooperate in public school rather than function as individuals. This ideological approach to mathematics encourages children to form groups that discuss and discover mathematics. Thus, New-New Math focuses upon group discussion and group process rather than individual endeavor.

Indeed, individual excellence is discouraged because competition and comparisons between students are viewed as counterproductive. This is an aspect of Cooperative Assessment. Goals are supposed to be low enough that all students can meet them, so that no student is a failure. Having a "one-size-fits-all curriculum" discourages individual merit by ignoring the unique and unequal and abilities of children in favor of homogenization.

There is nothing intrinsically American about homogenized mass education. In 1797, while revising the Virginia Statutes, Thomas Jefferson laid out a detailed vision of public schooling. In his book "Free Speech and Plain Language," the iconoclastic libertarian Albert Jay Nock described some aspects of Jefferson's plan. "Each ward should have a primary school for the three R's, open to all. Each year the best pupil in each school should be sent to the grade-school... They should be kept there one year or two years, according to results shown, and then all dismissed but one, who should be continued six years." Jefferson recognized and encouraged individual excellence.

Whatever you think of Jefferson's plan -- call it elitist, call it antiquated -- one point remains. Mass education need not be homogeneous. Jefferson would have rebelled against socializing children -- that is, against having schools inculcate correct social values. Instead, the goal was to impart the basic knowledge and skills that allowed children to think for themselves and choose their own values.

The mass education which most of us know is a relatively new thing that was influenced primarily by the American philosopher and educator John Dewey. In his watershed book "Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey wrote that popular education should be used as a conscious tool to remove social evil and promote social goods like cooperation. Dewey focused on pragmatism, on learning-by-doing rather than learning-by-rote. He viewed education as a tool by which children could be integrated into the culture. The goal was to mold good citizens, not to educate.

The public school system began to shift ideologically. Slowly, American schools abandoned classical education -- history, literature, languages -- in favor of the less disciplined liberal arts approach favored by Dewey and his followers. This so-called 'progressive education' gained wide acceptance during the first half of the 20th century. Not until the '50s, when the superiority of Russian scientific knowledge and training became a national concern, did Americans seriously question whether public schools adequately educated their children. Focus shifted back to individual competence and merit.

In the last decade, the shift has reversed itself once more.

What is the solution? There are at least two: private schools and home schooling. Bureaucrats believe that one child is like any other and nothing significant is lost in the process of homogenizing individuals: "parts are parts."  But every parent knows that children are unique sparks who must be nurtured, not denied.