Los Angeles Times
Friday, September 17, 1999


Education: We're starting with basics for reading; why not give students the basics of arithmetic, algebra and geometry, too?


The new Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education deserves praise and encouragement for its efforts to improve student academic achievement. Unfortunately, in the case of mathematics education, the board is getting bad advice from district staff.

Phonics and other basic language skills have received well-deserved national attention in recent years. As a result, "whole language" is disappearing from the curriculum. By contrast, "whole math," the philosophical sibling of whole language, is still entrenched in district schools.

The Los Angeles Systemic Initiative, or LASI, is a multiyear, federally funded district program with the worthy goal of improving mathematics and science education. The problem is that LASI has done more harm than good. The initiative's recommendations have caused many district schools to abandon credible arithmetic, algebra and geometry instruction. LASI has implemented the worst mathematics curricula that we are aware of, and we are aware of many due in part to our service on the California Content Review Panel for K-8 mathematics books. In that capacity, we made recommendations to the state Board of Education for statewide adoption on a huge number of math textbooks submitted by publishers--finding only a small fraction of these worthy of use by California students.

LASI has promoted an experimental K-6 math curriculum, Mathland, which has no textbooks for students. Its manual for teachers tells them not to explain the standard algorithms of arithmetic to children. In other words, children are not taught the traditional procedures for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Nowhere in any of these K-6 materials is the usual way to multiply two numbers, like 35 times 76, ever explained.

For high school, LASI recommends so-called integrated math curricula such as Interactive Mathematics Program. Like other integrated math programs, IMP suppresses basic algebra at all grade levels. For example, it delays an important eighth-grade algebra topic, called the quadratic formula, until the 12th grade. This defect alone puts Los Angeles students at a serious disadvantage on the California standardized testing and reporting, or STAR, exam that tests this topic in the eighth grade.

Mathland and IMP are not the only questionable programs implemented by LASI in Los Angeles schools. All of LASI's recommendations are problematic. The heavy emphasis on calculators is particularly damaging. This often results in students needing their calculators for even the most rudimentary figuring. It is our view that calculators should be used sparingly in grades 6-12 and not at all in grades K-5. The base 10 structure of our number system together with the standard arithmetic algorithms carry the seeds of algebra. Depriving children of mastery of arithmetic closes doors to more advanced mathematics courses in ways that district staff members do not seem to understand.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that success in secondary school algebra is the single greatest predictor of success in college--not just for engineering and science majors, but for majors in all fields.

Particularly troubling to us is the justification for LASI's watered-down mathematics programs as reported in The Times in August. An LASI supporter is quoted as saying, "There's a move to eliminate anything but old-style math. But it's only striking against inner-city schools where kids need a different approach--they need to see, touch and feel what they are learning."

We vigorously disagree. Independent of skin color and wealth, students need the same rigorous foundations, including the all important "old-style math" subjects of arithmetic, algebra and geometry. The legendary Jaime Escalante, depicted in the movie "Stand and Deliver," catapulted his disadvantaged students to national prominence using "old-style math." The high-achieving African American and Latino students at Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood provide another example. Sacramento Unified School District abandoned the faddish LASI-style curricula for its multiethnic students and increased its first and second grade SAT-9 test scores by more than 16 percentile points this year.

Data from the recent STAR exam show that students taking integrated math courses in California--such as those promoted by LASI--scored lower than their counterparts enrolled in traditional math courses.

All of the mathematicians who served on the Content Review Panel for the State Board agree about what constitutes a good mathematics curriculum. We urge the new Los Angeles school board to set aside the recommendations of LASI, and seek advice from the broader mathematics community instead.

David Klein, a CSUN Mathematics Professor, was appointed by the State Board of Education to evaluate mathematics teacher professional development programs.

R. James Milgram is a Stanford University mathematics professor who regularly advises the state Board of Education on math issues.