Numerical Winter

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Surely we must borrow from the lexicon nuclear physicists use for describing the life span of radioactive fallout; the sustained dangers of nuclear winter. I can think of no better analogy to describe the long-term devastation that has been, and continues to be, brought upon the American people. The culprits? — New Math and Fuzzy Math proponents and philosophies. Only an analogy like that of sustained radiation and its harmful consequences can aide us as we consider a worse case scenario, and work towards that faraway day when we may again have a fully mathematically literate populace.

What is the lifespan of nuclear radiation and fallout? The following explains it in clear but frightening terms.

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 are the most dangerous radioisotopes to the environment in terms of their long-term effects. Their intermediate half-lives of about 30 years suggests that they are not only highly radioactive but that they have a long enough half-life to be around for hundreds of years…cesium-137 has the further insidious property of being mistaken for potassium by living organisms and taken up as part of the fluid electrolytes. This means that it is passed on up the food chain and reconcentrated from the environment by that process.

Those numbers sound about right: “…intermediate half-lives of about 30 years…a long enough half-life to be around for hundreds of years.” The theory that something (like Fuzzy Math) can insidiously be mistaken for another substance (real math) and taken into organisms thereby reconcentrating, multiplying, and passing destructive qualities on for hundreds of years is apt, as well. As the harm of whole language / Dick & Jane / sight words / balanced literacy, have filtered down through the generations, causing irreparable harm in individuals and families, so will compromised or nonexistent math skills further undermine the people, the economy, and every aspect of life in America.

Those educated before the cyclical waves of New Math spread across the land, or by teachers and homeschooling parents wise enough to see beyond the façade, face a massive and difficult project: to silence the pathological New Math hawkers; to insist that the schools return to teaching logical, incremental, foundation building and sustaining arithmetic and higher maths; to train teachers in how to correctly teach the math that they, themselves, never learned; to grieve for the generations so harmed by yet more intentional and inexcusable experimentation in the field of education.

Unfortunately, and unlike cesium-137, math victims are capable of feeling pain and loss. Their victimization at the hands of the New Math gurus will forever compromise, if not completely degrade or destroy, the quality of their lives. It is a sad burden that they bear; one they will carry and pass on as New Math insidiously reconcentrates with each new generation.

Even with the nuclear lexicon and the theory of Nuclear Winter to give form to our thinking, it will be nearly impossible to calculate the length, breadth and depth of the disaster being brought about by these destructive mathematical decisions — decisions mandated for children, parents and teachers; decisions that continue with no sign of abatement; decisions brought to us from the State. Government grants make it difficult for school leaders to make any choice but the one designed to mold the population into the State’s idea of human resource units. Such grants stipulate that if a district wishes to receive any monies from the State coffers, it must choose new textbooks from the approved list created by the Department of Education or the National Science Foundation, or any other unconstitutional agency that has its fingers illegally intertwined in local schooling decisions.

In an attempt to legitimize the mandates, districts will be encouraged to trust a cadre of supposed experts in the field: educators, university professors, researchers. Districts will be tempted with multi-million dollar grants and counseled by university professors who have never even taught math using the excellent curriculums they most criticize. New Math proponents will do anything to prevent you from seeking the counsel of anyone who has actually taught math using exemplary materials; who actually understands the outcome of poorly conceived instructional methods. Many New Math proponents will distort the truth to the point of blatant dishonesty.

Let us open our eyes and be realistic. Let us also consider the role that textbook companies play in this federal takeover and dumbing down of our schools. Textbook companies understand full well the consequences of selling districts inferior teaching materials. With inferior materials and methods, most children will certainly fail to learn. The textbook company will gear up to create and sell their “New and Improved Editions" to districts facing pressure from those parents and taxpayers still capable of analytical thought. “We need more money for better schools!” is the incorrect answer; the big lie. More money will buy the next round of dumbed down textbooks; problems will be exacerbated rather than solved; and a very large percentage of that money will end up in the coffers of the textbook companies — the same ones that wrote, promoted and sold the instructional materials that created the problems in the first place.

Were the schools functioning in a free market, the districts would toss out the inferior materials from Company X, vowing never to buy from them again. They would also not buy from Companies T, Y and Z that pass off the same kind of curriculum as Company X just differently packaged. Were districts to do their own thinking, use their own money, and make up their own minds, they would purchase the best materials — materials that had proven their value over time and through sales made to willing and knowledgeable buyers. But government grants distort this process and ensure that there will be no free market in educational materials. Recall that Government dollars only go to districts that choose books off the government approved list. I find it very disturbing that the companies with the most expensive and least durable materials are the ones that always manage to be approved as one of the players. The State really should act with fiduciary responsibility to its taxpayers, but in this land of politics, kickbacks, payoffs and back-rubs, the sale goes to the highest bidder.

I was grieved when I learned that the only book companies I had ever trusted — Saxon Math and Open Court Reading — had been purchased by bigger players on the textbook scene. Open Court has already gone through a revision which I consider a definite step down from the wonderful edition that I used in the early 90′s to teach deaf children to read; to help deaf children exceed all expectations and opinions long held for the deaf becoming readers.

Saxon Math is now being rewritten, and I sincerely hope that the new owners will not change the format and/or dumb down that excellent curriculum. We who use and love Saxon do not want to see it diminished to match the failure rate of the other materials on the market. Seventy percent (70%) of homeschooling families, including my own, use Saxon Math and we do so for good reasons. Saxon carefully and logically presents, teaches, and develops real math skills. Homeschooling is growing by leaps and bounds, and there will be millions of unhappy parents willing to ‘vote’ with their money; to purchase Singapore Math or any curriculum BUT the ones that show any sign of following New Math philosophies. Saxon stands to lose a large, solid, loyal base. I hope they realize that and care about business from their homeschooling families.

The new and even fuzzier math materials are arriving at the schools. One teacher described the appearance of the books as “an explosion in a kaleidoscope factory.” How appropriate! Too much color; too many pictures; too much garbage…oh, I mean too much verbiage; too little practice material; illogical presentation of important concepts; no sensible plan for the development of a solid numerical foundation upon which to learn and use higher maths; too many expensive teacher manuals, intervention manuals, workbooks, test books, test record books…

I find this true with every book that each math student brings to my clinic. One 9th grader, requesting tutoring in “pre-algebra,” arrived carrying a first year algebra book. He was not even a good arithmetic student, but had been plunged into the most confusing, out-of-order algebra text that I had yet seen. I reached for Saxon Algebra I and checked the index. Nothing there. Odd. So I opened Saxon Algebra II and found the concept — near the very end of the book! A new pre-algebra student was being totally confused in school, while suffering devastation to his self-esteem, by a textbook that purposely structured lessons for failure by presenting a late Algebra II concept to students who had never been taught the beginning and intermediate concepts and processes!

When I told my homeschooled son this story, he was shocked at the ignorance of anyone who would design such a textbook — a book that should be a learning tool but instead sets students up for certain failure under the pretense that such a difficult concept is appropriate for an introductory lesson. We agreed that such textbooks leave the child believing that he or she is totally ignorant since they lack the knowledge and sophistication to understand that the ignorance lies with the textbook designers and writers.

Yes, a homeschooled teen can actually be more intelligent and more attuned to the logical presentation of concepts necessary in good math instruction than the specialists who develop such anti-learning materials for the textbook companies; more than university pipers who lead school districts, and the children mandated to attend them, down a blind and winding path which leads only towards hundreds of years of mathematical stupidity — to a Numerical Winter from which the human race, or at least Americans, may never escape with faculties intact.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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