May 01, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- To anyone who last set foot in a math classroom a decade or more ago, a visit to Marilyn Mayer's eighth-grade algebra course would reveal little that is familiar.

Desks are arranged so students face each other instead of the chalkboard. The walls, window blinds and even the hallway outside her room at Long Beach's Bancroft Middle School are plastered with artwork reflecting students' use of mathematical concepts.

The room often reverberates with the chatter of students working together to solve problems, and Ms. Mayer constantly exhorts her budding mathematicians to "use your calculators if you need to" and "tell us why you did that."

Math experts say those are the kinds of things that should be, and will be, happening in classrooms all across America as part of the biggest transformation of math teaching in three decades.

In this widely heralded new approach -- which also has its critics -- work sheets and drill at the chalkboard are out. So is an emphasis on complicated paper-and-pencil computations, such as long division.

Students still learn how to multiply and divide, but they also work in groups to solve problems that touch on their daily lives and talk and write about the solutions.

"It's not enough to get the right answer anymore," said Mary M. Lindquist, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "We have to be able to look at all the possibilities in solving a problem, to understand the process and to communicate it . . . that is what is going on out in the workplace today."

The council helped launch the math revolution in 1989 by spelling out high standards for students in an increasingly complex, technology-oriented, rapidly changing world.

The goal is to move students beyond computational skills -- especially those that can be done more efficiently with calculators or computers -- and prepare them to tackle problems in new situations. "We want students to make sense of mathematics, to be able to see the uses of it and be confident in their ability to do mathematics," said Ms. Lindquist.

More than 40 states have signed on to the effort to transform how math is taught. California is at the forefront after adopting in 1992 a widely acclaimed curriculum guide for math teachers from kindergarten through high school. The guide embodies the new approach, introducing youngsters to more advanced concepts at an earlier age and training them to understand the logic behind basic math principles.

Still, the first test results from the California Learning Assessment System, also part of the math reform movement, found that the new thinking on math has yet to take hold in classrooms.

Designed to measure how well students understand math concepts, the tests discovered that a third or more of students showed little or no understanding of math basics.

Math educators say they do not expect to see a lot of improvement soon. Many expect it will take several more years for the new methods to reach every classroom and to yield results. They estimate that no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of today's students are receiving significant exposure to the curriculum.

There are several reasons for the delay, including a dearth of textbooks and other teaching materials geared to the current thinking on math education. A new generation of textbooks is just now coming off the presses, but the books are not expected to be in California classrooms before the fall of 1995.

Finally, there is a small but vocal group of critics, including some math teachers, who believe the new approach keeps students from learning important computational skills.

Their message appeals to parents leery of the changes, especially those who struggled under the short-lived "new math" trend in the 1960s.

"Go into some of the classrooms and watch the open-ended activities, and you'll find a lot of nothing under way," said Wayne Bishop, a math professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and a frequent critic of the new approach.

In trying to teach students math theories without connecting them to youngsters' daily lives, the "new math" movement of the 1960s sputtered because it worked only for the brightest students and left teachers frustrated.

"It was an effort to try to provide students with a fundamental understanding of mathematical systems, but what happened was that it had virtually no support from anyone other than the people who were promoting it at the time," said Ms. Lindquist of the math teachers council.

Today's reformers, armed with a better understanding of how children learn, are making a concerted effort to ground the lessons in children's experiences and to build consensus on the standards and methods not only among teachers but also with parents and business leaders, Ms. Lindquist said.