MTV Math Doesn't Add Up

by Marianne M. Jennings

Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University

Appeared in the Wall Street Journal on December 17, 1996.

When our eldest child went to public school, we learned much. She came home spouting off about "Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Persons." She taught us that Christopher Columbus was even more evil than researchers who use bunnies to test eyeliner.

We learned to live with the ebbs and flows of her gimmicky curriculum. But then one evening my blood boiled, as I witnessed her using a calculator to compute 10% of 470. Later that same evening, when I had to explain to her how I got 25% when the answer to an algebra problem was one-fourth, I asked my own flesh and blood, "Are the other kids this dumb?" My straight-A child reassured me, "Oh, they're much dumber."

It was on that night two years ago that I began researching math education. Given what I learned, it didn't surprise me at all that the U.S. ranked well below average among 45 nations surveyed in the Third International Math and Science Study released last month. Using newfangled and untested notions, today's U.S. math educators have all but eliminated numbers and are creating a generation of mathematical nitwits.

The first problem is the textbooks. When I opened my daughter's eighth-grade algebra book, I thought it was her social science book. Call it MTV Math: The Addison-Wesley text, "Secondary Math: An Integrated Approach: Focus on Algebra," has color photos, essays on the Dogon tribe of Africa, and questions such as "What role should zoos play in today's society?" There's Maya Angelou poetry, pictures of Bill Clinton and little insights from Tabuk and Esteban (youngsters chosen to enlighten students about cultural differences in the ever-fluid concept of slope). The book, with its busy pages and journey through environmentalism, is an 800-page pedagogical nightmare. By contrast, our mathematical superiors, the Japanese, have 200- to 300-page texts all about -- get this -- math.

My daughter's algebra text and others like it were created in response to standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The NCTM never formally adopted these standards, because of disagreement among its members. But never mind -- proponents of the standards are among the 30 to 60 authors and consultants listed in the front of these new textbooks.

The idea behind the standards is that a "conceptual understanding" of math, not problems and practice, is what matters. It's like saying you can learn to play a piano concerto by studying how it's written -- and forget about learning musical notation or even what a piano is. These standards fail to recognize that the memorization of basic math facts and that ability to do mental math are not only important skills, but predictors of future success.

By taking the math out of math, educators have stripped the discipline of its beauty. Math allows children to develop the skills of critical thought, abstraction, attention to detail, clarity, perseverance and discipline. These skills do not come without sweat of brow. MTV Math offers only brief, superficial glimpses of numbers, disguised in inane problems even the children find laughable. Rigorous study of math, with all its challenges and eventual conquest, truly gives students what educators tout as all-important: self-esteem. MTV Math denies children all this.

Math education goes further astray in the jungle of popular but unproven teaching techniques. Under "cooperative learning," for example, students join together in groups during class, with the hope that they will somehow teach each other a concept none have ever seen. Traditional exams give way to "portfolios"; grades are determined according to a "rubric" that requires teachers to undergo hundreds of hours of training. But how much training is required to grade "If 3x + y = 15 and y = 3, what is x?" Just using math problems with a single answer could help more our nation's rankings up a tad.

I've been to see teachers, department heads, principals, district officials and school board members with my simple suggestions: Get a math book, make students practice problems, have them do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication in their heads, give them standardized tests, and drop the group work. When they don't ignore me, they're downright hostile, labeling me a member of the "extreme Christian right." I asked our resident revisionist history expert about this; my daughter explained that people who demand learning as part of education are "religious zealots." (At least she has a good vocabulary.) Maybe the Romans fed Christians to the lions because they demanded that their children learn square roots.

Yesterday a teenager working at Burger King asked me if my change was correct. Seems the computer was down and he had no calculator. Last night my daughter asked me how to figure out a percentage for one-third. Nitwits. The engineers who put Neil Armstrong on the moon learned good old-fashioned math. This next generation will have trouble pointing out the moon: The portfolios will have more than one answer.