Traditional math > arithmetic

Just like many education philanthropists, education reporters tend to tread carefully around issues of curriculum and pedagogy. It's not hard to understand why; anyone who spends their working lives outside of the classroom is naturally leery about appearing to tell teachers how to do their jobs (myself included).

Perhaps out of this concern, some reporters revert to a simple, if simplistic, journalistic approach: when covering debates around the teaching of math or reading or other subjects, they present the story as a struggle between opposing camps. And their preferred narrative is the truce: the two warring factions, each with extreme views, find middle ground in a common-sense approach that even your average newspaper-reader can understand.

So it was with the media's coverage of the National Math Panel's final report, released last week. The Wall Street Journal even put this narrative in its headline: "Education Panel Lays Out Truce In Math Wars." The New York Times said the report "tries to put to rest the long, heated debate over math teaching methods."

Many papers quoted Larry Faulkner, the panel's chairman, who declared, "There is no basis in research for favoring teacher-based or student-centered instruction. People may retain their strongly held philosophical inclinations, but the research does not show that either is better than the other."

But is this narrative true? Was the math panel's report a compromise? Hardly. The report is a major victory for math traditionalists, with its advocacy for "procedural fluency" and "automatic recall of facts," its concerns about an over-emphasis on teaching estimation and probability, and its caution that "to the degree that calculators impede the development of automacity, fluency in computation will be adversely affected."

So how to explain the misleading reporting? Easy. The proponents of "reform math" have convinced the press and the public that the "back to basics" crowd only cares about arithmetic, and ignores the importance of problem-solving and conceptual understanding-in the same way that the whole language crowd has argued that proponents of "scientifically based reading instruction" only want drilling in phonics and nothing else.

But this is ridiculous. It's impossible to imagine a math traditionalist like Tom Loveless arguing that all students should do is memorize their math facts, that they should never touch a word problem or be stretched for deeper understanding. Similarly, reading guru Reid Lyon would never say that students shouldn't be exposed to great works of literature once they master decoding skills. In fact, the "traditionalists" have adopted the "consensus" view all along-students need arithmetic and conceptual understanding; they need phonics and a rich vocabulary.

It's the progressives who have made the "either/or" case, raising concerns that students will somehow be harmed if made to practice their multiplication tables or sound out words. Consider the views of Ruth Parker, CEO of the Mathematics Education Collaborative: "By the time we have drilled them on ‘the basics,' we have convinced most students that mathematics is a subject to be memorized not understood, or worse yet, that it is a deadly boring subject to be feared and avoided."

That's an extreme view-one that has no pairing on the traditionalist side of the spectrum. And it's a view that the math panel rightly rejected.

I do hope last week's report signals the end to the math wars, or at least a cessation. If so, history will show that it wasn't a truce, however. In this round at least, the traditionalists won.

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