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Harvard professors are among the scholars responsible for sparking what is turning into a nationwide debate over mathematics curricula.
In an open letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, a group of mathematicians and scientists criticized the work done by a panel of experts on behalf of the Department of Education (DOE) endorsing new mathematics curricula for grades K-12.
The 200 signatories include Sheldon L. Glashow, Higgins professor of physics, David Kazhdan, Perkins professor of mathematics, and Graduate School of Education Research Associate Sandra Stotsky.
The panel was convened at the behest of the U.S. Congress in 1996 and produced its report in October after considering 61new mathematics programs.
The panel endorsed five programs as "exemplary" and five as "promising".
The committee's endorsement means only that local school authorities are encouraged to use the new curricula.
In general, the curricula represent a change from current policies because they focus on problem-solving rather than learning arithmetic by rote learning.
"In my position, I see test scores go up when the focus changes from rules and procedures to solving problems," said Stephen J. Leinwand, Mathematics Consultant for the Conn. State Department of Education and a member of the panel.
But the letter, published on the Internet and as a full-page advertisement in last Thursday's Washington Post, said these curricula lack mathematical substance and do not teach basic mathematics skills.
According to the report, the new curricula could cause American children to perform below their peers in other countries in mathematics. It also criticizes the DOE for not including "active research mathematicians" on the panel.
"I found [the programs] in some instance are absurd," Glashow said. They are ill thought-out proposals."
He added that the endorsed curricula focus too much on those students with little or no knowledge of mathematics.
The programs would hold back more advanced students and deny them the skills they would need at challenging universities like Harvard, he said.
Glashow fears that the new curricula would produce graduates unable to work in mathematically challenging fields, such as computer science, the high technology, medicine, or other sciences.
Leinwand said Glashow's criticism of the curricula is misplaced. The committee does not call for all students to follow one set curriculum, he said, and it certainly does not call for the end for honors classes for those students who are quite advanced in mathematics.
"Nobody is telling districts that they have to adopt certain programs for all kids," Leinwand said.
But Glashow said the programs are not even adequate for students less talented in mathematics because they focus too little on basic arithmetic.
Leinwand said traditional programs are not accessible to a majority of students.
"The issue is what programs best serve the masses," Leinwand said. "All of these programs have records of teaching children mathematics. There are statistics supporting every program. We came out with very sound programs."
Regardless of substance, the letter criticizes the panel for being out of touch with the mathematics and science community.
"It is not likely that the mainstream views of practicing mathematicians and scientists were shared by those who designed the criteria for selection of exemplary and promising mathematics curricula," it said.
Glashow said he hopes the letter will encourage the DOE to reconsider and change its endorsements.
"I assume the Department has the best interests of students in mind," he said.
The letter calls on Riley to withdraw the government's endorsement and asks for further consideration by a new panel that also includes "well-respected mathematicians."
A math advisor to Education Secretary Riley, Linda P. Rosen, said Riley has no plans to withdraw the panel's report.
"We stand firm behind the process that was used, to say that there was higher student achievement in those programs that were recommended," Rosen told the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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