Plano Star Courier, December 2, 1998

Math students deserve the best of both worlds

I moved my family to Plano because of the excellent reputation of its schools. The proposed introduction of Connected Mathematics and other new math programs are raising doubts in my mind concerning the future standards in our schools. As I prepare the report for the school board concerning Connected Mathematics, I discover more factual and experiential evidences to question Connected Math. It is ironic, or should I say ominous, that the four pilot schools showed a lower margin of improvement after CMP was introduced. Before continuing in my critique, I would like to commend our middle school math teachers. In my analysis of the math scores in middle school, I am impressed with the significant improvements made in the percentage passing TAAS for each cohort prior to CMP. We see schools having more than 10% improvement. This is a sterling testament to the quality of teachers we have in our schools.

After evaluating the Connected Math textbooks, the Texas Education Agency deemed that they do not conform to state standards by a substantial margin of 40%. Furthermore, the experience of Okemos Public School District next to Michigan State University, the cradle of Connected Mathematics, should also alert us to the dangers that lie ahead. One year after introducing Connected Math, parents and kids experienced so much difficulty that the school district reintroduced the traditional curriculum. Why should we rush to adopt this questionable text?

I was born and raised in Singapore. My generation was brought up on a "drill-and-kill" school system. It is only when we come to the West for higher education that we begin to say, "Aha, this is all beginning to make sense." (I'd call this the "Aha" factor.) Asian teachers, schooled in the West, realized the advantages of the "Aha" factor in motivating kids to learn. Thus, today, as we discovered from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, Japanese kids in middle school spend more time on developing and honing mathematical conceptual skills - the kind of skills that Connected Math claims to instill. However, it would be tragically erroneous to conclude that Asian schools have given up rigorous practice and drills altogether. On the contrary, kids are learning and mastering topics much earlier than when I was in school. Besides regular classroom assignments, there is a booming industry for workbooks on English, Math and Science from Kindergarten through Senior High to be used for extra curricular practice. It is because Asian schools have combined the best of the East with the best of the West that they are leapfrogging American schools in achievement and performance. Actually the best of the East was also found in the West, once upon a time. Our kids should deserve the best of both worlds.

However, due to a growing disdain for practice and drills by the educational elite in this country, we have witnessed rigor being sacrificed on the altar of understanding. The mantra is this: "Children don't need to be punished with drills. They just need to grasp the concept and they will remember it for life." As adults, isn't it our experience that we seem to have to learn the same lesson over and over again before it sinks in? Good habits are formed that way, bad habits can only be broken that way. Our educational elite have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

About a decade ago, we witnessed the clash of Apple and IBM PC. Apple dedicated itself to producing quality machines and user-friendly software. Their marketing strategy focused on margin rather than volume. On the other hand, IBM PC's strategy was to gain market share at the expense of lower profit margin. Its early operating system was clumsy but has steadily improved over the years resulting in Windows 95 and now Windows 98. In terms of quality, they are still no match for the Macs. But the PCs are affordable, and because of the huge market share there is a wide range of software applications making PCs cheaper to operate. Consumers vote with their wallets and chose PCs rather than the Mac. PISD chose pragmatism over idealism. Have we given up on quality? No, Win 95 applications are almost as good as Macintosh. In the real world, we try to strike a balance. But ideologues don't live in the real world. If they have their way, they would not admit that PC is the winner. They would claim that Apple is the real winner since their users are more confident and educated. They have higher self esteem and are better team players. If they have their way, they will rewrite the rules and re-stripe the playing field. If they have their way, they will replace existing assessments with fuzzy ones that will show their curricula in a better light.

Why do we let educational ideologues dictate to us what we should use for our children? Why do we let them use our excellent school district as their testing ground, our dedicated teachers as their pawns and our innocent children as their guinea pigs in their insatiable quest to breathe new life into their long defeated theories? From their ivory tower, they toss us this textbook and say, "Here, try this, it is our latest." When we call their technical support lines, we would find out that this is a beta (i.e. trial) version and, alas, another generation of kids is lost. There should be a Lemon Law in education.
The empirical evidence presented in support of Connected Mathematics has been scanty and inconclusive at best. I am afraid that a more thorough analysis may even prove it to be detrimental.  Let common sense reign in Plano Schools. Our children have the ability and right to be schooled with both rigor and understanding. We shouldn't need to choose one at the expense of the other. Don't shortchange our kids. My plea to administrators and parents is this: Let us build a consensus, let us forge an alliance to give our kids the best of both worlds.

Timothy Soh