By James McCusker Herald Columnist
Elementary schools once spent an extraordinary amount of time trying to make all students proficient in number systems other than the base-ten system we are familiar with.
It was part of what was called the “New Math,” which was created in a Cold War response to the perceived math superiority of the Russians. Despite its good intentions, it was prepared in thought-free haste. Instead of improving math skills it simply spread confusion among students and parents, at the expense of basic arithmetic skills. Employers complained that their newly hired workers couldn’t be relied on to “make change from a dollar.”
In an introduction to his song about “New Math,” mathematician and comedian Tom Lehrer got it just right. Prompting his audience’s memories of how the new math made ordinary arithmetic problems impossibly complicated, he explained that it was really simple. “Base eight is just like base ten, really … if you’re missing two fingers.”
Schools often hold meetings where principals describe to parents any new program or curriculum changes that affect their children. At one of those meetings some years ago, the principal of an elementary school explained the latest curriculum change in math that had come down from the district.
It was not a raucous meeting at all. Parents raised their hands or stood up to be recognized before they spoke and the principal listened carefully and addressed each question in turn. There was audible support, though, when one parent stood up and said he objected to the change because, “I don’t want my kid to be part of an experiment.”
The principal nodded, waited a moment, and responded by saying, “I understand, but the truth is that our children are already part of an experiment. And it’s failing.”
It was a thoughtful response but it did not carry the day. Parents were uneasy about undergoing yet another change in how their kids were taught basic skills and saw no reason to believe that the latest innovation would be any better than the disastrous previous ones.
Still, the principal was both respected and well-liked, and the parents were willing to adopt a wait-and-see approach. Clearly, the “New Math” had not succeeded in eradicating the parents’ faith in the school system. It would take a generation of social ferment, political change and ineffectual innovations in education to complete that work.
The legacy of “New Math” continues to haunt today’s public school systems, especially those in densely populated urban areas. In many large city’s schools, change is demanded but impossible.
There are so many disparate, shouting voices in today’s big city school politics that it is very difficult to manage the system as it exists, let alone introduce change. In response, school systems have developed and installed elaborate defense mechanisms, which themselves inhibit real changes. That is why things like curriculum or test changes these days so often come wrapped in statistical studies and surrounded by a phalanx of degree-totin’ data slingers.
Superimposed on the impossible management environment, though, is the growing awareness that our public schools have to change because the educational results are not satisfactory. On average our kids are not learning what they need in today’s world or any world for that matter.
Instituting a significant change, though, is an exercise in taking head-banger music literally. And a recent classroom restructuring plan in the Los Angeles Unified School District provides a perfect example.
The L.A. district wants to reorganize part of its school day so that some classes — history, civics and literature — are assigned on the basis of English language proficiency. School district authorities are concerned about the lack of progress in English language ability for many students as they advance through grades. District testing records revealed that approximately 50,000 of their English Language Learners who entered the school system in kindergarten and advance into high school never become proficient in English. As a result, their performance declined and they fell farther and farther behind.
There is widespread opposition to the new plan, which was developed in response to a civil rights lawsuit. Many believe that it is a revival of segregation and will make the language gap worse instead of better. The district believes, though, that the change will permit a more effective concentration of its language resources and put its English learners on a faster track to achieve proficiency and broader educational goals.
We don’t know how this plan will turn out, but the intensity of the opposition certainly reflects the deficit of faith in school systems that is, in part, a legacy of the “New Math” and other failed experiments. If this new plan works maybe a bit of that faith could be restored. We could sure use it.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.