The Freedom to Agree

by David Klein

The L. A. School District Board of Education shows its appreciation for open-minded debate. These folks decide how math is taught to your kids.

Several years ago, the National Science Foundation awarded the Los Angeles Unified School District $15 million to replace secondary school courses in algebra and courses in geometry with "integrated math." The grant, called the Los Angeles Systemic Initiative or LA-SI, is also intended to promote elementary school curricula, like "MathLand," which de-emphasize arithmetic and push "group discovery" learning with calculators. LA-SI has similar goals for science education.

Integrated math is unpopular with parents. It superficially combines statistics, geometry, and algebra in each of the middle and high school grades. Students are deprived of the concentrated exposure to algebra, geometry, and trigonometry required to pursue scientific careers, or even to become scientifically literate citizens. It is a dumbed-down version of high school mathematics intended to equalize mathematics achievement among all students. Critics, like myself, have termed it "fuzzy math" (detailed descriptions are available at the website of a parents group called Mathematically Correct, which is critical of integrated math.

The motivation for fuzzy math is a deep-seated fear among many liberals that minority students are just too dumb to learn real math. So, to equalize student outcomes, we'd better get rid of unpleasant topics like algebra, or at least dilute them. This is the reigning perversion of egalitarianism in liberal education circles. Liberals have revealed their racism and ceded the high ground in education to the conservatives without so much as a struggle. Education leaders regard parental requests for algebra courses for their children as interference. LAUSD, with federal backing, knows what's best and everybody else has the freedom to agree. No other freedom is allowed.

But parents of school children failed to exercise their LAUSD-given freedom to agree during a meeting at a public school in the San Fernando Valley. On June 15, a group of 50 to 100 parents, teachers, and LA-SI leaders met at Nobel Middle School to discuss the implementation of integrated math. As a mathematics professor from the nearby Northridge campus of California State University, I was asked by two parents to attend. At my request, Ali Zakeri, another mathematics professor from Northridge, also attended that evening.

Prior to the meeting, a parent and local school activist, Diana Dixon-Davis, and I urged the LAUSD Board of Education to adopt the California Mathematics Standards and to make available Algebra I courses to students who request them. A sympathetic assistant superintendent, John Liechty, appropriated approximately $9,000 to each of three middle schools so that they could each offer a single Algebra I course, in addition to their LA-SI-sanctioned integrated math series.

But the principal of Nobel wanted no part of Algebra I. She would not even acknowledge that she had money approved for an Algebra I class. The June 15 meeting was an indoctrination session for integrated math.

The first hour was spent on the predictable dog and pony show, complete with overhead projectors, to demonstrate the futility of algebra and the glories of integrated math. Driven by the $15 million, fuzzy math teachers from other schools, LA-SI leaders, and even a district cluster leader lectured the audience that Algebra I is no good and integrated math is great. It was explained that within five years, all secondary math courses in LAUSD would become integrated math courses. Parents knew that the top performing high schools in LAUSD don't use integrated math, but comments from the audience were suppressed.

At one point during the presentation, the outgoing head of the math department at Chatsworth High, one of the leaders of the pro-integrated math movement, approached me from behind my seat and demanded to know where I got the copy of the integrated math textbook under discussion. It was sitting on my lap, and she demanded that I give it to her immediately. I had never before met her and only learned her identity a few days later. I refused to give her the book, and Diana Dixon-Davis explained that she had borrowed it from one of the schools. She signed out for it and my possession of it was above board. Evidently the math teacher did not want me even to see this math text, since I am a known non-believer of the true religion. She left in a huff.

Then three-by-five cards were passed around. These were for written questions. Verbal questions were not to be allowed by edict of the principal. Diana Dixon-Davis bravely interrupted the speakers on several occasions and read aloud statistics contradicting the claims of the high priests of fuzz. These interruptions were not appreciated by the truth monitors.

As the little cards were being collected, I stood up and objected to the process. I pointed out that it was designed to stifle any and all legitimate criticisms of integrated math and filter all questions through LA-SI leaders. I said that Prof. Zakeri and I came, not to ask questions on three-by-five cards, but rather to criticize the integrated math books used by this particular school.

The principal said that we would not be allowed to speak. But when several parents demanded that we be heard, she relented. Ali and I walked to the front of the auditorium. When we reached the podium, the principal insisted on knowing what we were going to say before she would hand me the microphone. I told her that I was going to criticize integrated math and speak of the virtues of a traditional course in algebra. She refused to give me the microphone, and almost on cue, one of the true-believers insisted that it would be unfair to allow us to speak.

That was that. We returned to our seats. Several parents objected once again. The principal said that we could come to her office and express our concerns privately the next day. When a few parents said they wanted to hear us, she said they too could come to her office.

I stood up and said that Ali and I would definitely not return the following day. The principal then said we could speak at the end of the three-by-five question-and-answer-session. About this time a policeman walked into the room and stood in the back.

The praise of integrated math droned on and the last three-by-five card was finally read. At that point a parent said that he wanted to hear what the "opposition" had to say. The principal said that it would not be fair for her to allow Ali and me to talk, since we were not previously scheduled.

Objections to the censorship were stronger this time. One of the parents demanded a vote. There was a spontaneous show of hands overwhelmingly in favor of letting us speak. I introduced myself, explained the importance of algebra and the weaknesses of integrated math. I explained how a concentrated course in algebra is better for those who intend to go into math, science, or engineering. I talked a little about the excellent new California math standards. I introduced Ali Zakeri as one of 20 recent recipients in the U.S. of the Mathematical Association of America distinguished teaching award. He continued on the same theme, indicating the superficiality of integrated math compared to a good algebra course.

Then we had a question and answer session. One of the fuzzy math advocates demanded an example of how integrated math was more superficial than the traditional sequence. I talked about the treatment of the quadratic formula and explained in detail how it was splattered over three years in the integrated sequence and still not done properly. LA-SI leaders moaned audibly in derision. All the while the policeman was standing in the back of the room staring at me and Ali. An education professor from CSUN, with a child attending the school, stood up and explained that education professors at CSUN disagree with the "subject matter professors" and that from the point of view of research on how children learn, integrated math is better. These are the people who train our teachers.

Eventually the fuzzies took over the microphone again and resumed efforts to get the crowd to worship the goals of the $15 million NSF grant. I wish now in retrospect I had said something about the power of money to force programs in school districts. $15 million buys many true believers. Unfortunately, I didn't think of it at the time.

Ali and I left at this point. The situation was chaotic with parents not knowing what to believe. But as we left, the high priests were once again baptizing the parents in the true religion. I don't know what the outcome will be. Diana Dixon-Davis remained and fought it out. She was tersely instructed by the cluster leader not to announce that money had been allocated for any Algebra I course, unless she had proof.

She obtained that proof the following day in the form of a memorandum of understanding from Asst. Superintendent John Liechty. I have learned that some parents are now adamantly demanding a real algebra course instead of the NSF-funded stupification program. But I'm inclined to believe that the LA-SI leaders will ultimately have their way. Algebra and geometry as individual subjects will be abolished through government power. The sole right of parents is to agree.


This manuscript was published in California Political Review and is reproduced by permission.

David Klein is a mathematics professor at California State University, Northridge, and a member of the Green Party. Despite considering himself firmly on the left, he finds much to criticize in liberal education policy.