Dr. Dennis DeTurck, mathematics professor and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a book to be published next year calling for a reform of mathematics education to eliminate the teaching of fractions, long division, square roots, and pencil-and-paper multiplication of large numbers. Dr. DeTurck dismisses these as obsolete:
"Fractions have had their day, being useful for by-hand calculation. But in this digital age, they're as obsolete as Roman numerals are....Parts of math are used differently now -- and different parts are used."
Dr. DeTurck goes on to give the standard educratic excuse for dumbing-down academic instruction: that teaching kids challenging material is allegedly bad for students' self-esteem.
"Part of that is our kids are remarkably sophisticated consumers. They want to know why they are forced to do complicated and difficult calculations. You can't say, 'Have faith and it will all become clear,' Kids figuratively throw up their hands. It is no longer seen as relevant."
Having high expectations for students has been shown time and time again to result in a greater level of achievement. As a woman especially, I get angry when educrats like Dr. Peggy McIntosh of Wellesley's "Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity" project allege that traditional math is "culturally oppressive" towards female and non-white students.
Dr. Maureen Stout discussed the S.E.E.D. project in her book The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of Our Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem:
"SEED's director, Peggy McIntosh, sells her elementary school math curriculum on the basis that it teaches children to understand themselves 'in the bodies of the world,' and places them 'in the deepest relationship with the invisible elements of the universe.' Will her program teach children basic arithmetic skills? Unlikely. McIntosh hates arithmetic problem solving because it presumes 'right' and 'wrong' answers, a presumption, she says, which in its very 'hierarchical' nature unfairly imposes a 'white,' Western paradigm of 'getting ahead' on an increasingly nonwhite, non-Western student population. In a democratic and racially diverse society, McIntosh insists, to concentrate on arithmetic skills is bound to demoralize children of color, who (she implies) are culturally not disposed to the notion of 'getting ahead.' She warns teachers against drills and tests on the grounds that in the cruel 'win-lose world of right and wrong mathematical operations... there is no way the child can feel good about the assignment.'"
News flash to Dr. McIntosh: mathematics is an exact subject. 2 + 2 = 4 not just for white males but for everybody, regardless of race or gender. She demonstrates an incredibly patronizing attitude towards female and minority students when she implies that they are less able to solve math problems correctly. It is neither "cruel" nor "culturally oppressive" to teach kids how to calculate the right answer; in fact, it is cruel NOT to!
The children most hurt by the "fuzzy math" fad are precisely those who are already at a disadvantage. Affluent, educated parents can make up for deficits in their children's curriculum by "afterschooling" or enrolling their children at the local Kumon center. Or they can simply vote with their feet and flee the government-run schools for private or home schooling.
Dr. George Andrews, president-elect of the American Mathematical Society and math professor at Penn State, summed up Dr. DeTurck's proposal thus:
"All of this is absurd. No wonder mathematical achievements in the country are so abysmal."
I couldn't agree more. India and China don't sit around worrying that teaching rigorous math hurts the self-esteem of children. The Economist forecasts China's real GDP will increase 10% in 2008 and India's will increase 8% compared to the U.S.' anemic 1.2%. If the U.S. hopes to compete in the global economy, we've got to fight against the dumbing-down of the curriculum such as the proposal by Dr. DeTurck!