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Curriculum CenterThe TIMSS studies have incited a hot debate centered on the way in which mathematics is being taught in many classrooms in this country. Is a traditional approach better than a "whole math" approach? Which side will win out in America's "Math Wars"?

In 1995, in one of the most comprehensive international studies ever attempted, researchers compared the mathematics and science educational levels of more than one-half million students in 41 countries. The results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), released over the past year, quickly escalated the simmering hostilities over math instruction in this country. The headlines read:

U.S. Fourth Graders Score Above Average in Math!
U.S. fourth graders exceeded the international average in five of six mathematical areas, including geometry, whole numbers, fractions, patterns, and data representation.

U.S. Eighth Graders Score Below Average in Math!
Study results indicate that U.S. eighth grade mathematics instruction is at a seventh grade level by international standards.

U.S Twelfth Graders Among the Lowest in the World!
U.S. twelfth graders outperformed math students in only two other countries -- Cyprus and South Africa.


TIMSS revealed that students in the United States experience a steady decline in math achievement levels between the fourth and twelfth grades. Suggested reasons for the decline have run the gamut from too much television to too little homework, from too much poverty to too few classroom resources, from a lack of teacher training to a lack of student motivation.

Much of the current debate, however, has centered on the way in which mathematics is being taught in many classrooms in this country. On one side of the conflict are the traditionalists who claim that students should learn math by memorizing and practicing basic facts and skills. On the other side are proponents of what is often called "whole math," who deride the old "kill and drill" methods of education, claiming that children learn best when they discover, understand, and integrate knowledge through independent exploration.

Nowhere is the debate over methodology more evident than in California, where the abandonment of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards in favor of basic-skills based guidelines has pitted parents, teachers, administrators, and mathematicians against one another in pedagogical warfare. Back-to-basics advocates there say that previous guidelines, based on NCTM standards, which emphasize problem-solving, has resulted in a watered-down curriculum and mediocre test scores for the state's students. Supporters of the NCTM standards say the problem-solving approach motivates students and prepares them for the kind of math they'll use in real life and in the workplace. They warn that math achievement scores will fall if the new guidelines are widely adopted.

Perhaps the most vocal faction in the raging math wars is made up of parents. Fearing that their children -- who many say cannot even make change -- are being short-changed by a politically correct and mathematically incorrect educational experiment, parents in California and other states have issued their own call to arms. In Michigan, a group called Parents for Excellence in Math Education is being formed to fight a math curriculum that emphasizes exploration and teamwork over basic skills and formal instruction. A group of California parents have established their own Web site, Mathematically Correct, to promote the back-to basics position. And parents in Virginia, Texas, Maryland, and elsewhere are making their presence and their views known to educators who they fear, in the words of one concerned father, "are making experiments of our children."


An article in Commission Connection (an online publication of the Education Commission of the States) entitled Math Standards Backlash states that "The importance of teaching mathematical basics versus advanced skills has become the topic of bitter fighting in several states [and] debates over this subject are bringing school improvement efforts to a standstill in many communities."

But now, the nation's top educational leader is calling for a cease-fire. In a recent press conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley insisted "We are suffering here from an "either-or" mentality. As any good K-12 teacher will tell you, to get a student enthused about learning, you need a mix of information and styles of providing that information. You need to provide traditional basics, along with more challenging concepts, as well as the ability to problem-solve, and to apply concepts in real world settings."

And Brain Research and Education: Bridging the Gap Between Neuroscience and Education, another Commission Connection report, supports that view. The author states that "There is neurological evidence that children are capable of learning more than is currently believed if information is presented in the manner best suited to each child's learning style. It is thus important to find ways to engage those special intelligences within an education system designed to maximize each child's opportunities to learn. It is also important to provide multiple pathways for learning. For instance, children may grasp mathematical concepts and procedures better if they do both real-world math projects and rote-memory exercises."


Suggesting that the combatants harness the energies employed in the battles over methodology and put them towards a crusade for excellence, Education Secretary Riley has outlined a plan for raising the standards of mathematics achievement in our country. He has called for a truce in the battle over how math is taught and enjoined educators to concentrate instead on what is taught and on what level of achievement is expected. Riley's 6-point plan asks educators to

  1. Build a firm foundation by having more students study algebra and geometry by 8th and 9th grade.
  2. Raise state and local standards of academic performance.
  3. Measure student performance against rigorous standards.
  4. Offer a challenging curriculum and encourage students to take demanding courses.
  5. Improve the teaching of mathematics by improving teacher training and reducing the number of teachers teaching out-of-field.
  6. Destroy the myth that advanced mathematics is only for a few students.
"We need," says Riley, " to set higher expectations for our students."

University of Pittsburgh Professor Edward A. Silver supports Riley's view that the blame for poor math performance among U.S. students does not lie on the instructional method used, but rather on a "repetitive and undemanding" math curriculum that is based on the attitude that only the best and the brightest are capable of understanding higher level math. In a report entitled Improving Mathematics in Middle School: Lessons from TIMSS and Related Research, Silver calls the U.S. school mathematics program "unfocused -- a mile wide and an inch deep" and he suggests the following pathways for improvement:

  • Make a serious national commitment to improved mathematics learning by all students.
  • Make the school mathematics curriculum more ambitious and enhance classroom instruction.
  • Invest in teacher professional development and capacity building to support improved mathematics achievement.

Silver concludes, "If we as a nation adopt the belief that all students can learn mathematics; if we act in consistent, coordinated ways to effect that goal; and if we make the requisite commitment of human and financial resources, there is good reason to think many more students will succeed. Our children deserve nothing less than the best mathematics education in the world."

See Educators Battle Over Calculator Use: Both Sides Claim Casualties

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
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