Koshy: Math, fuzzy math, and reform math

Thomas Koshy

Recently, I was visiting a middle school and saw an interesting poster on the auditorium wall. It read, "Today's preparations determines tomorrow's success." How true that is.

But how successful are our schools in preparing students for a better future? If we claim success, it is certainly debatable.

How many of our non-science and non-math majors like math? Dislike math? Hate math? Well over 95 percent hate math; most of the rest dislike it; and a few here and there think math is OK, but they will not major in math or science.

Invariably, students give the same responses: "Too many numbers; too many rules; too rigid; too boring; no applications; poor teachers; and I'm not good in math." These responses reflect their classroom experiences; they tell us a lot about the skills and knowledge expected, imparted and retained.

When high school graduates cannot covert 5,000 seconds into hours, minutes and seconds, we have a problem with the lack of very basis skills. When high school graduates cannot determine the day of the week in 1,000 days from today, the problem is significant.

Likewise, when a sixth grader cannot compute the change from a $20 bill for lunch at McDonald's, it does not bode well for basics. When a 10-year-old cannot compute how much she is owed for shoveling snow for an hour and 15 minutes at $7.50 an hour, and when her 13-year-old sister needs a calculator to compute restaurant tips, our schools are not yielding acceptable returns.

These examples illustrate the need for an immediate return to the basics, beginning in elementary school. The love and appreciation of the power of math are planted in elementary school, where math, unfortunately, is often taught by teachers with minimal preparation or interest in the subject.

Their dislike for math as well as their superficial knowledge of even basic math often results in their pupils' superficial preparation for middle school math. When pupils enter high school without adequate preparation, they have suffered irrevocable damage with respect to pursuing quantitative disciplines. So, it is not surprising that, according to the National Science Board, "a quarter of the American college freshmen take a remedial math course."

Elementary school math teachers must have a love of math and demonstrate it as a rewarding experience in the classroom. Current math preparation must be revamped substantially with more skills, facts, and knowledge. Math is a cumulative subject; it is a language with its own vocabulary and unambiguous rules. This idea must be conveyed to pupils for them to take math seriously. Sound preparation determines a pupil's success, as well as our country's future.

Our teachers may know a lot about the theories of teaching, but they too often demonstrate inadequate knowledge of subject matter. This was re-confirmed last December in a study published in "Contemporary Educational Psychology." A team of researchers headed by S. Peverly of Columbia University compared 162 third-grade math teachers in the U.S. and China. The U.S. teachers lacked "a profound understanding of fundamental mathematics," the study concluded.

Our schools are "ruining the lives of millions of Americans every year," said Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft. We cannot continue to afford to waste the future of another generation of youngsters. Our students do not need computational, fuzzy or reform math, but straightforward math from elementary school on. That worked fine for centuries, and was the mainstay of math education until the educational experimentation in the 1960s.

When China graduates nearly three times as many engineers as the U.S. and India twice as many, and when our graduate schools graduate mostly foreign students in math, science and engineering, we are heading to a serious crisis.

Thomas Koshy. Ph.D, is a professor of mathematics at Framingham State College and received the 2007 Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award.