To the Editor:
The Davis School Board will vote on adoption of a new K-6 mathematics curriculum and accompanying materials within the next few weeks. Adoption is premature at best. Parents in the district have had very little opportunity for input. Their concerns need to be addressed before drastic changes are implemented.
The current concerns over mathematics education have focused on two areas: lack of basic skills, and poor performance on standardized tests. California's children have done so poorly in these areas that last spring the State Superintendent of Public Instruction convened a special Task Force in Mathematics to address these problems. The Task Force recently came out with its report. This report, unfortunately, postdates our curriculum committee's recommendations.
The new curriculum, and particularly the proposed Mathland materials, addresses neither our children's lack of basic skills nor their poor performance on tests. It instead wholeheartedly embraces the philosophy of the the mathematics "reform" movement popular for the last ten years or so, a movement that is being seriously questioned by both the mathematical and the educational community. One tenet of this movement is that standardized tests are an inappropriate way to measure mathematical skills. Instead, interviews with students, essay questions, and evaluations of portfolios of student work are substituted. These are the primary methods of evaluation in the Mathland curriculum. Another tenet is that drill in basic computational skills is not only unneccessary but probably harmful. This is also reflected in the Mathland materials. The level of computational skills required of the students is very low, and the quantity of computational work is minimal.
The curriculum committee seems aware of these defects, in fact we were told that both areas of concern would be addressed during this coming year. It is a curious process, first to adopt a curriculum and materials and then to worry about two serious problems with them.
The Mathland materials have some attractive features. They do indeed seem to make math "fun" for many students, they are well-organized, which should make life much easier for the teachers, and they are cohesive across the grades. In addition to the above flaws, however, they emphasize activities over ideas, and they provide no way for children to work independently. The instructions in the student workbooks are so poorly written that students could not be expected to follow them without considerable help. While the Mathland materials might be a useful component of a program containing a substantial amount of more "traditional" mathematics, it would be foolish to adopt something with such obvious inadequacies.
Associate Professor of Mathematics
University of California, Davis