"Whole math" is a form of instruction that has kids develop their own methods of multiplying and dividing, ask questions of one another rather than of teachers, and learn that answers that are close to correct are good enough. It's a phenomenon familiar across the country, but nowhere has it been embraced more enthusiastically than in California. Last December, however, the California State Board of Education struck a blow for common sense, voting unanimously to roll back whole math and to put in place rigorous, back-to-basics standards.
Parents opposed to whole math, many of them mathematicians, scientists and engineers, cheered the board on. But at the last minute, entering the fray in favor of whole math, was the National Science Foundation. On the day of the vote, Luther Williams, head of the NSF's education directorate, sent off a fax declaring that what the board was about to do was "shortsighted and detrimental to the long-term mathematical literacy of children in California." Moreover, he wrote, the "Foundation currently maintains a portfolio exceeding $50 million in awards to six public school systems in California," and that funding would be in jeopardy, he warned, should those school systems change direction.
Mr. Williams's letter "was a clear threat, a last-ditch effort," says state board member Janet Nicholas. And while it didn't change board members' minds, it did cause Ms. Nicholas to see the NSF in a new light. "I used to hold NSF in high regard," she says. "I thought of it as an objective purveyor of facts, a source of analytic review. But it's a bully."
Alan Cromer, a physics professor at Northeastern University in Boston, says that the NSF began to lose its moorings in the early '90s, when the education directorate "latched onto constructivism," a philosophy that views knowledge as something that each of us creates rather than something with its source in the physical world. Constructivism provides the rationale for encouraging elementary school students to invent their own ways of multiplying and, when stymied, to ask other children for help. Peers are unlikely to know enough to provide answers--and thus interfere with the individual's constructive process.
According to Mr. Cromer, NSF review panels for elementary and secondary education are now largely composed of people friendly to constructivism: "Panelists aren't picked who don't go along." In his book, "Connected Knowledge," he describes some of the results, including an NSF-funded middle-school science textbook that includes an exercise in which students squat by their desks while the teacher pops popcorn. The students gradually stand as the intensity of popping increases and then, with their eyes closed, make a graph of the event. "The point of this, believe it or not," Mr. Cromer writes, "is to demonstrate diversity. Each student, you see, will draw a different graph."
Mr. Cromer speculates that the reason constructivism has taken hold is that it confers status. Math and science educators are stuck in education departments, he observes, completely cut off from math and science departments. "What is their expertise?" he asks. "Constructivism gives them something to be expert on. It helps the professional lives of a marginalized group of people."
But constructivism and the teaching practices that go along with it have also been embraced as a way to transform science from "a white male domain," in the words of one NSF grantee, into an undertaking more in tune with "the sensibilities and values orientations of the underrepresented." This grantee, the New York State Systemic Initiative, is one of 59 projects in 42 states that together receive more than $100 million from the taxpayers a year to promote ideas like whole math on the grounds that they will, as the New Yorkers explain it, "expand the caricatured image of science" from "logical" to "creative" and from "competitive" to "cooperative" and thus create a "science for all."
Another NSF grantee, the Interactive Mathematics Project, a highly controversial textbook series developed with more than $16 million in taxpayer funds, promises to make "the learning of college preparatory mathematics accessible to students, such as women and minorities, who traditionally have been under-represented in college mathematics classes." This will be done, according to the IMP application, by de-emphasizing mathematical facts and formulas, having students work in groups, and making sure that each of them has a calculator at all times.
But why will women and minorities fare better if science and math are presented as artistic and cooperative enterprises? Why will they benefit if everyone carries a calculator? The race-and-gender activists who advance these ideas seem not to realize that they are advancing stereotypes that portray women and minorities as inept at logic, competition and mental calculation.
In fact, the Department of Defense has found that instead of benefiting women and minorities, whole math hurts everyone. In 1995, whole-math curriculums were introduced into the department's overseas elementary and middle schools. A year later, when some 37,000 students took the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, scores dropped in all racial groups.
A dozen members of Congress have sent a letter to President Clinton expressing their disapproval of the NSF's attempt to influence the California State Board of Education. "To use the hammer of possible withdrawal of federal funds to force a state into compliance with unproven practices is unconscionable," they write.
Perhaps Mr. Clinton--who's so impressed with the National Science Foundation that yesterday he proposed to increase its budget by some 10%, to $3.77 billion--can use his vaunted rhetorical powers to explain what has happened to objectivity and judgment at the National Science Foundation--and to inquire why this agency, like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, seems unable to maintain critical distance from trendy and harmful ideas.
Mrs. Cheney, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was formerly chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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