- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

The "dumbing down" of school math courses and the lack of student accountability are producing millions of math illiterates, despite increased spending on education, mathematics educators say.
"All children can learn? Nope. Not unless they work," Paul J. Sally Jr., head of the University of Chicago's undergraduate mathematics program, told joint meetings of the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society at a Baltimore convention center yesterday. "All children can learn if they're willing to work. If they're not willing to work, they won't."
Conference officials said 4,477 mathematics educators from throughout the country and abroad were registered for the meeting. Mr. Sally was commended for his criticism of widely used mathematics textbooks, which he said "belonged on the coffee table, not in the classroom."
He said the books taught "descriptive mathematics," which critics call "fuzzy math." The technique is responsible for students failing to master even the most elementary skills by the time they graduate from high school or enter college, said Mr. Sally.
"Why are these books necessary?" he asked. "Are they supposed to represent a good way to teach mathematics, or are they simply a default position?
"The notion that one has to 'interest' students in mathematics in order to make them do it has gone much too far, to the point where real mathematics in many cases has just disappeared entirely from the courses," he said. "They're just a discussion of what mathematics does and beautiful pictures and imprecise ideas."
The professor said many college-level mathematics courses for students not majoring in math are "the equivalent of people taking English and reading classic comics."
He said the trend toward "fuzzy math" in college, rather than teaching students to do "serious mathematics" has led to growing numbers of college graduates who are numerically illiterate.
"There is almost no situation in life where you're not going to need some quantitative literacy in order to achieve certain goals," he said.
Joan Gordon, an algebra teacher at Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, said students enter her classes "who don't have knowledge requisite for the course" because elementary and middle schools no longer teach good arithmetic courses.
"The teachers might have been teaching, but the children weren't learning because they didn't have to learn because of administrative 'social promotion' policies," she said. "They pass on kids that are failing. Administrators are telling us to give them courtesy Ds."
But her department does not practice social promotion, Miss Gordon said.
"The failure rate [in algebra] is 60 to 82 percent. Kids are taking the course three or four times," she said. "We teach introductory algebra in the eighth grade, where the students don't know enough arithmetic to do algebra. They don't know how to read or write either."

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