Math Seminar
American Enterprise Institute
March 4, 2002

David Klein's Presentation

No single institution in the United States has caused more damage to the mathematical education of children than the National Science Foundation.  

In saying this I want to make it clear that I am not criticizing the NSF's admirable and important role in supporting fundamental scientific research. I am talking about the Education and Human Resources division of the NSF.  This is the division within the NSF that funds K-12 education projects. It is responsible for systematically promoting the worst math education fads of the past decade.

"Fuzzy math" originated with the NCTM and the nation's colleges of education. These negative programs have been aggressively funded and promoted, not only by the National Science Foundation, but also by numerous private foundations such as the Noyce Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Flora Hewlett Foundation to name just a few.  Perhaps later I will have time to provide some specific examples.

Parents are up in arms and are rebelling against the NSF and NCTM fuzzy math programs.  Hundreds of mathematicians are too. Let me give you an example.

In October 1999, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 10 so-called "exemplary" and "promising" math programs that it recommended for the nation's schools. More than half of these "exemplary" and "promising" math programs were created with NSF money, and others were and are aggressively promoted with NSF funding. Parents and mathematicians have opposed them for years. Why would they do this? These so-called "exemplary" and "promising" programs are among the worst math books and programs in the country. They radically de-emphasize basic skills in arithmetic and algebra. Uncontrolled calculator use is rampant and calculators are often introduced starting in kindergarten. Fuzzy math books claim to teach conceptual understanding, but they don't. Instead they squander valuable class time on aimless projects with little or no intellectual content. One can draw a parallel between the philosophy that underlies the failed "whole language learning" approach to reading, and these NSF/NCTM math programs. Some of these math programs don't even have textbooks because books might interfere with children's creativity and the so-called discovery process.  

Many of America's leading mathematicians were alarmed by the federal government's official endorsement of fuzzy math books.  In November, 1999, I faxed an open letter to then Education Secretary Richard Riley that was co-signed by more than 200 other mathematicians and scholars. Our open letter urged the Department of Education to withdraw the entire list of "exemplary" and "promising" mathematics curricula and to announce that withdrawal to the public.

Among the endorsers of our open letter are many of the nation's most accomplished scientists and mathematicians. Department heads at many universities, including Caltech, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, as well as two former presidents of the Mathematical Association of America added their names in support.  Seven Nobel laureates and winners of the Fields Medal, the highest international award in mathematics, also endorsed.  The open letter was published as a full page ad in the Washington Post thanks to the generosity of the Packard Humanities Institute.

Following its publication and press coverage, the NCTM denounced our open letter and expressed its complete support of the fuzzy math programs.  Specifically, in a letter dated November 30, 1999, the NCTM board of directors sent a letter to the Secretary of Education that said:

"…the Board of Directors of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics wishes to inform you of their unconditional support for the work of the Expert Panel, the criteria used by the Panel, the process employed by the Panel, and the quality and appropriateness of their final recommendations."

That is, for the 10 so-called "exemplary" and "promising" math programs.

The so-called "exemplary" and "promising" math programs, and others like them, continue to be aggressively promoted by the NSF. Parents in New York City are now working with mathematicians from Courant Institute at NYU and other New York Universities to find ways to resist the NSF/NCTM imposed fuzzy math programs, but so far the NSF is winning. Some of the parent leaders and mathematicians in New York City are in attendance at this event. There are similar alliances between parents and mathematicians in other communities.

The NSF and NCTM fuzzy math programs cause problems for all school children, but they are particularly harmful to children with limited resources.  Upper middle class parents can afford tutoring to compensate for what the National Science Foundation has done to their schools. The tutoring industry has skyrocketed as NSF/NCTM fuzzy math programs proliferated across the country. Sylvan Learning Centers, Kaplan, Score Learning program , and Kumon, are among the examples.

But the greatest damage is to lower income children who directly bear the brunt of these defective, anti-arithmetic and watered-down algebra programs.  

The NCTM has adopted the point of view that most girls and minority children have learning styles that are different from white males and Asians of both genders. Professor McKeown has commented on that already.

While he was president of the NCTM, Jack Price said that minority groups and women do not learn math the same way as white males. He stated:

        "... women have a tendency to learn better in a collaborative effort when
        they are doing inductive reasoning."

This was in contrast to the way white males learn math. According to Jack Price,

"males ... learn better deductively in a competitive environment."

This attitude toward women and minorities is consistent with the NSF funded math books. They rely heavily on superficial repetitive patterns, a form of inductive reasoning, rather than logical deduction, which is the core of mathematics.

The NCTM has attempted to redefine mathematics itself in order to support a notion of learning styles in math associated with skin color and gender.

This is misguided in the extreme.  

There can be no doubt that children of all races and backgrounds can excel in classical, content rich educational environments.  Jaime Escalante, portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver, sent his low income Hispanic, calculus students to top universities in record numbers.  Nancy Ichinaga, Marjorie Thompson, and many other principals and teachers in Inglewood, California described by Professor McKeown  have also proved, beyond a shadow of doubt, that African American and Hispanic students not only learn, but excel in traditional content rich programs.

What do these educational leaders say about the NSF/NCTM math reform agenda?  Nancy Ichinaga told me, "Reform is for the birds."  According to Escalante, "whoever wrote [the NCTM math standards] must be a physical education teacher."  While I don't think Escalante's comment is quite fair to P.E. teachers, his point is clear, and the National Science Foundation would do well to listen to criticisms and change course.

If President Bush is listening now, I strongly urge him to find new leadership for the Education and Human Resources Division of the NSF. The National Science Foundation needs leaders who can stop the damage that organization is causing to the mathematical education of America's school children.