Get past the buzzwords and address programs' merits

Thanks once again to The Journal for continuing to cover the controversy over the Montgomery County Public Schools ``fuzzy" math pilots that will hit some of our middle schools this school year (``As MCPS math pilots begin, Texans file suit," by Jennifer Jacobson, Aug. 30).

What is most amazing in the Aug. 30 article is the statement by MCPS Secondary Math Coordinator Nancy Metz that MCPS knew about the controversies in Plano, Texas, and the community objections to the Connected Mathematics Program - one of the three National Science Foundation-sponsored pilots in MCPS middle schools - and went ahead anyway with the pilot.

Moreover, as Gifted and Talented Association President John Hoven states in the article, not only did MCPS officials know about the controversies over CMP, but they neglected to tell the MCPS parents whose kids would be in the pilot about the vehement (and now litigious) Plano parental objection to CMP. Amazing!

Parents expect MCPS will be a ``world-class" school system. We have heard these buzzwords for years. We have also heard about Success for Every Student for years. But I guess that MCPS bureaucratic vision doesn't extend to kids who don't need remedial, discovery a k a ``fuzzy" math programs. Maybe we should put a bunch of MCPS bureaucrats into a ``discovery" group and see if they ``discover" the formula for teaching math to middle school kids who don't need remediation.

I can only see an upside here - either we won't have the pilot anymore because the bureaucrats will see that the group discovery method doesn't work, or we will have a middle school math program that doesn't rely on middle school kids trying to teach themselves math without instruction as to formulas.

And to schools Superintendent Jerry Weast, I would say: Relying on CMP to increase our standards in middle school math is like pushing the proverbial boulder up the proverbial mountain. It's just not going to happen. Let's wake up and smell the Plano and California coffee. Please finish your review of the NSF grant application already, and spare our middle school children (and parents) the horror of three years of ``fuzzy" middle school mathematics without instruction.


Silver Spring

Par for the course

In Jennifer Jacobson's Aug. 30 article, ``As MCPS math pilots begin, Texans file suit," I find some missing points glaringly obvious about Montgomery County Public Schools and how it operates (past and present included):

MCPS Secondary Math Coordinator Nancy Metz said: ``We visited Plano, so we're aware of the community objections to the program."

She also said: ``What's happening in Plano doesn't really change the fact that we've researched this program for two years. What we need to do is see how the students in Montgomery County do and how the teachers do. That's what I really care about."

My points:

1. No comment was made (or maybe just not included) by Metz about the same National Science Foundation-backed math programs that the California school system rejected. She conveniently comments on the programs being implemented by the schools in Plano, Texas, since they fit (somewhat) more neatly into her plan, despite the controversy (lawsuit filed) there by the parents, and the fact that the same program was rejected in another state (California).

Also, she mentions MCPS sent delegates to Texas in February to evaluate the Connected Mathematics Program. Did they also send delegates to California? It would make sense to do so in order to get the most comprehensive data and research as possible on an already controversial program.

2. Metz mentions she has researched this program for two years, yet no mention about what research was done, where it was done and who participated in that research (and their qualifications to do so). Since they went to Texas just this year, I am assuming there must be some other states or communities (other than California) that have tested this program and are part of the research - or are we just going to be the third public school system to use our kids as guinea pigs and watch them fail as well, just like Plano, Texas, and California? After all, three strikes and we are all out, is that the plan?

3. Finally, the last comment by Metz really strikes home to me - the fact that they researched a project for two years, found mainly negative results from this research (as far as we know, since we know nothing of their research other than what the press has gathered for us), and Metz has the nerve to basically imply to the parents of the students in the school district that she doesn't care what they say, she only wants to see how the students and teachers do.

Her comments, in fact, echo what parents in Montgomery County have been complaining about the MCPS administration for years - what we say or want doesn't matter.


Silver Spring

A world view

There are a few statements in James Fey's defense of Connected Math (``Connected Math based on sound principles," Viewpoint, Sept. 1) that should be clarified.

He claimed that ``reports from international studies of mathematics achievement have suggested various ways our textbooks and teaching could be improved with insight from practices in countries that are more effective in mathematics education." One such report was the Third International Math and Science Study, TIMSS. In the TIMSS test for 13-year-olds, six of the top seven countries do not use calculators in elementary school. In Japan, calculators are used very infrequently if at all. In Singapore, calculator use starts in seventh grade, but is controlled carefully. Exams have sections where a calculator can be used, but also sections where a calculator is not to be used. Singapore was the top scoring nation in this part of TIMSS.

Connected Math says that a calculator always should be available to be used at the discretion of the student.

If the alternatives of instruction, with students either passively watching and imitating demonstrations of routine computational techniques or working in groups to discover mathematical work on their own, were the only two possibilities, one might settle for the second. However, these are extreme methods that are not used in countries with successful mathematics education programs.

To see some good examples of explanations that teachers give - and how they get students involved - read the new book ``Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics" by Liping Ma. One question the teachers were asked was to calculate 1 divided by and to make up a story problem with this as the solution.

One of the Chinese teachers interviewed gave three problems dealing with sugar. She said she would put them on the board, have a class discussion on their similarities and differences, and then have the students make up their own problems. Connected Math does not treat division of fractions!

Starting in fourth grade, Singapore texts have a very nice pictorial method of solving problems dealing with fractions, proportion and ratio. Students draw pictures that they later learn mimics the algebra they start at the end of sixth grade, and study seriously in seventh.

When in Singapore in June, a Singapore mathematics educator told me this method was developed about 12 years ago. Actually, it is older, and a friend told me he had been taught this method in Hong Kong more than 40 years ago.

Connected Math has nothing like this to build toward algebra, and their algebra at the end of eighth grade is comparable to the algebra in the sixth-grade Singapore text, with maybe a little of the seventh-grade work having been started.

However, the problems done by the pictorial algebra method are more complicated than those in Connected Math. It is unrealistic to expect students to develop this method on their own. Yet it is an excellent introduction to algebra.

Being equal to - or only slightly surpassing - a system that Fey describes as based on routine computational techniques is not adequate. Fey said that no mathematician has described Connected Math as remedial or dumb-down. Some parts of it are. There are also some errors. The treatment of repeating decimals is by a method that is a dead end; it does not apply elsewhere as the standard method does. Also, it is described incorrectly.

There is the problem of how to find the area of a parallelogram. The simple case is outlined for students to do, and the complicated case is assigned as a problem for the students. The answer in the Teacher's Guide does not provide the help that the teacher needs, and the suggested outline is incorrect.

Let me strongly suggest that Montgomery County get copies of Singapore texts, which are in English, and use them as a model of what they would like from publishers. If the publishers do not have such books now (and I have not seen them), they should be told that books of this quality are what is needed.

If enough districts do this, we may get texts that will help improve our mathematics education enough to get us to average in the world by 2010.

First in the world by 2000 is not a reasonable goal. Some of your schools might consider using Singapore texts. There are schools in the United States that are doing this.


John Bascom Professor of Mathematics

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Sheinbein case not first ruling that left bad taste

I must respond to the columns in The Journal on the Samuel Sheinbein case by Robert M. McCarthy (``After Sheinbein plea deal, give the outraged a voice," Aug. 30) and Blair Lee (``Sheinbein's plea bargain: from Israel with chutzpah," Sept. 1) because of their extreme diatribes against Israel. First, let me emphasize that I am very distressed with the sentence detailed in the plea bargain. Certainly the punishment does not fit the crime. I am sure the Jewish community feels the same way and sympathizes sincerely with Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr.'s family.

The claim by Mr. McCarthy that the case creates a rift between the Hispanic and Jewish communities and that the Israeli law is religiously discriminatory represents his unjust, discriminatory feelings. His proposal to reduce the amount of foreign aid to Israel is also unjust and prejudicial. I have not heard Mr. McCarthy proposing a reduction in aid to the Palestinian Liberation Organization for not permitting extradition of the terrorists guilty of killing U.S. citizens in Israel.

On the one hand, Blair Lee decries Israeli justice but admits that in the John Demjanjuk extradition case, an Israeli court decided he was not ``Ivan the Terrible" and had him returned to the United States. Mr. Lee neglects to mention that the extradition law in Israel has been changed. Unfortunately, like our laws, it is not retroactive.

Mr. Lee is correct that Israeli agents went into Paraguay and brought out Adolf Eichmann for trial. Eichmann was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people because they were Jews. His life should not be compared to Sheinbein's.

There are times when setting aside a law is justified. It is known as war. Mr. Lee should recall that, during the Carter administration, U.S. forces went into Iran secretly to free the hostages that were held there. Unfortunately, the operation was not successful. I do not recall Mr. Lee criticizing our disregard for the sovereignty of Iran.

Mr. Lee accuses Israel's view of justice as being myopic because in the name of justice, ``Holocaust victims are extracting billions from German and Swiss banks," yet Sheinbein is not being treated justly. I am surprised at Mr. Lee for making such an irrational and unjust comparison.

As I said, I am very unhappy with the Sheinbein case. However, the emotional and repugnant views expressed by Messrs. McCarthy and Lee are uncalled for. We in the United States believe we have the most just system of laws, but every now and then even we have our ``O.J. Simpson" verdicts.


Silver Spring