July 07, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FIRST CAME the reading wars. Then the mathematics wars. The two are waged on adjacent battlefields by similar armies wielding similar weapons.

Both wars pit traditional basic skills against "higher-order thinking" and "process." On the one side: phonics, "old math" and Direct Instruction. On the other: "whole language" and "whole math," group discussion, lots of essays, calculators (in math) and guessing (in both math and reading).

A glossary is helpful. Don't confuse whole math with "new math," the early '60s craze. It crashed resoundingly and isn't to be associated with the whole math of today.

However, since whole language is in disrepute as the phonics forces prevail in the back-and-forth battle, whole math proponents prefer terms like "complete math," "new-new math" or "reform math." They want nothing to do with "whole" anything.

The other side, of course, rubs it in their faces: whole math, "fuzzy math," "Mickey Mouse math," "math lite" and CPM, for "compulsory pedagogical manure."

Reading and math, the first and third R's, are thus intertwined in perennial pedagogical struggle. And that's not surprising. The two fields are much alike. Both rely on a building of skills from the earliest ages. Indeed, as many have pointed out, you can't do one without the other, particularly 'rithmetic without reading. (Math, however, differs from reading in one respect: Intelligent people take pride in admitting they're weak in math.)

Which brings us to Baltimore, which has invested $10 million in a new mathematics textbook series. Those who chose the new curriculum say it runs right down the middle of the battlefield.

I visited a training session for the city's new math curriculum the other morning at a sultry Southwestern High School, where I was impressed to see 550 sweating teachers discussing such subjects as "designing polygons" and "raisin data." (Raisins are edible "manipulables" that teachers for decades have used to teach the little ones to count.)

Baltimore had a problem when it set out to follow the new school board's order for new textbooks to be used citywide, the first such effort in 12 years. On the one hand, success in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) essentially calls for instruction in whole math. For example, children work in groups to teach one another, and the teacher is more a guide than a drill sergeant. Meanwhile, city kids need a solid grounding in basic skills if they're ever to advance to higher levels.

In short, they need math "phonics" before they can advance to math "whole language," the same argument posed last year when the city chose new reading texts. That they're getting a weak early grounding in both subjects might explain the dreadful city MSPAP scores.

The math series chosen after considerable consultation hews to the philosophies of both camps, according to Andrea Bowden, head of the city's math programs who supervised the text selection process. "It's not all process, and it's not all drill and kill," she says. "It combines reform math with what might be called traditional math."

Bowden and colleagues might have made the right move. The series selected, "Math and My World," published by the textbook giant McGraw-Hill, gets good marks even from those who decry "fuzzy math."

One such organization, with the ironical title Mathematically Correct, gives the McGraw-Hill second-grade book a B+, not the best but certainly respectable. "Students using the book have a reasonable chance to be well prepared to succeed at the next level of mathematics education and in appropriate real-world situations," the group says.

Two colleges bid farewell to noted leaders

The fiscal year-end retirement of two stalwarts in higher education is worth noting here.

John Brooks Slaughter, the cigar-smoking president of Occidental College, leaves the Los Angeles school after 11 years, during which he achieved "ambitious diversity goals," according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Slaughter will be remembered as the chancellor of the University of Maryland, College Park who left for California in the storm after basketball star Len Bias' death by cocaine overdose in 1986. Slaughter was drained by the scandal but never lost his considerable dignity.

Virginia Tanner, public relations director at Villa Julie College, leaves after 22 years. Tanner performed her job so single-mindedly that she would break through a newspaper's defenses to pitch a story in person. But Tanner, along with President Carolyn Manuszak (also about to retire) is partially responsible for elevating Villa Julie from a sleepy two-year secretarial college to a four-year college with many majors.

Her final news release announced her own retirement.