NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

No Wrong Answers In Math?

April 15, 1996

Educational experimenters in trendy California are at it. This time they've come up with a newer new math. In this new approach, individual students working out their arithmetic with paper and pencil are out; group work -- with no right or wrong answers -- is in.

Over the past three decades, U.S. students' math proficiency has declined.

  • Scholastic Assessment Test scores in math have fallen from 492 to 478 -- about 3 percent.
  • The top 5 percent of American high school math students score only as well as the top 50 percent of Japanese students.
  • In a 1991 assessment comparing students in 14 nations, American students scored only ahead of students in Jordan, while tying Slovenia and Spain.
  • In 1994, some 54 percent of freshman students in the California State University system required basic remedial math instruction.

These poor showings have apparently prompted California educators to try anything -- revamping guidelines and textbooks every seven years.

The latest California experiment, launched in 1992, follows standards advanced in 1989 by the national Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It's designed to "empower" kids interest in math.

  • Under the new agenda, teachers focus more on cooperative work, discussion groups, questioning, writing about math, exploration of chance, content integration and use of calculators and computers.
  • Out of fashion are complex paper-and-pencil computations, long division, rote practice, one answer and one method, written practice and memorization of rules.
  • Grading is now based on groups, portfolio assessments in which students keep their work in folders, and projects called "investigations" that are worked on over a period of weeks instead of days.
  • At the end of the exercise, the student presents an "analysis and a conclusion" rather than a solution.

Not surprisingly, advocates of the new "new math" admit they have no empirical proof of success or documentable standards, but argue that the old approach is a proven failure. Critics, on the other hand, believe serious compromises in traditional math curricula have been eroding achievement for years.

One fourth-grade text book advises teachers: "Your job is...not to judge the rightness and wrongness of each student's answer. Let those determinations come from the class...avoid showing any verbal or nonverbal signs of approval and ask, 'Does everybody agree?'"

Everyone doesn't. One publisher of back-to-basics math textbooks reports good results in California school districts where the books are in use. But under the 1992 criteria, it's the new new approach that must be used.

Parents in California communities near high-tech and professional areas seem to be most angered by the changes and are fighting back. But now that half of California's school districts have adopted textbooks with the new approach, one educator predicts: "When the (national) scores come out next year and California comes in dead last, nobody is going to be listening to us anymore."

Source: Matthew Robinson, "Why Johnny Can't Add, Subtract," Investor's Business Daily, April 15, 1996.


Browse more articles on Education Issues