NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Math Teachers Go Back To Basics

April 13, 2000

A decade ago, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics embraced "fuzzy math" -- the theory that it is more important for a student to understand how he arrives at an answer, rather than arriving at the correct answer itself. Now the group has altered its position and is emphasizing accuracy, efficiency and basic skills -- such as memorizing multiplication tables.

  • Following the group's 1989 advocacy of fuzzy math, 49 states adopted the new teaching standards in whole or in part -- to the dismay of irate parents, and even some teachers and university mathematicians.
  • While the latest revision does not completely abandon the fuzzy math notion, the change is likely to have a huge impact on the way mathematics is taught in the U.S. -- since the council's document is the closest thing this country has to a national curriculum in mathematics.
  • Now, following the decade long experiment, teachers will have to go back and relearn how to teach math by traditional means, textbook publishers will have to revise their math texts and new standardized test will have to be ordered.
  • Officials of the council reject the suggestion that they made an error -- asserting, instead, that they had been misunderstood.

The president-elect of the council insists that the teaching of fuzzy math did no harm. He rejects the notion that there is a "lost generation" of math students.

In November 1999, 200 mathematicians, physicists and other scholars wrote an open letter to Richard Riley, the Secretary of Education, urging him to withdraw his department's endorsement of math programs found to be in compliance with the group's 1989 standards.

Source: Anemona Hartocollis, "Math Teachers Back Return of Education in Basic Skills," New York Times, April 13, 2000.


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