Reform Math Education

Article excerpt

I am tired of hearing from doomsday educational critics who would have us abandon new ideas and return to the "good old days" - particularly in math education, where American students fall way behind the rest of the world.

Efforts to reform mathematics education are under way, but they have not reached many classrooms in the United States. While some math teachers are emphasizing thinking and problem solving, many students still experience mathematics that is dominated by memorization and drill, without any meaningful context. Reform classrooms are using technology to model and explore ideas. Students are challenged to find ways to solve problems based on what they know and understand. They have opportunities to link math to real- world problems.

While some schools are embracing reform mathematics, many others are persuaded by naysayers. But if schools continue to do more of what they've always done, they'll continue to produce too many students uninterested and unmotivated to study mathematics beyond high school.

I graduated from a small Missouri high school more than 40 years ago. Although I had caring teachers, and went on to major in mathematics in college, my high school experience with mathematics was weak. Most of my peers hated math. Algorithms and tedious procedures were demonstrated with little or no explanation of why they work. Sensemaking and understanding were not a part of my experience of learning mathematics. Students left class thinking that math consisted only of dull procedures and rules to memorize.

Performances over the past 30 years on the National Assessment of Education Progress and the International Mathematics and Science Studies document that traditional mathematics curricula and methods of teaching have not been effective. However, research is emerging that shows reform mathematics is increasing student learning.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a nonprofit organization of mathematics teachers, has published a set of content standards in math called Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (http://nctm.com). Consistent with these standards, some textbooks are now integrated - topics from arithmetic, algebra, geometry, statistics, and probability are naturally connected. Integration is commonplace in countries, such as Japan, whose students excel on international mathematics tests. But most US schools are still mired in a 19th-century course sequence of Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.

Throughout most of the 20th century, statistics and probability were not taught in school. …