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Volume 16, Number 6
November/December 2000

Will New Standards Bring Peace to the Math Wars?


On a rainy May Tuesday, Monica Matrisciano's 5th-grade math class is tackling fractions. For these 19 preteens there are no worksheets, no rules or procedures to learn. Instead, they work on a word problem—how to convert a recipe for 20 medium-sized brownies into a recipe that will feed 240 kids at snack time. In groups of three or four, the students first figure out how many brownies they will need, and then work on multiplying the ingredients by a factor of 12. They have no problem figuring out how many eggs and how many cans of condensed milk they will need (12 of each).

Trouble comes with the flour—a cup and a quarter—and other measurements that involve fractions. Since they have not been taught how to multiply fractions, they have to figure out a method themselves. They all struggle. Some kids add the fractions 12 times. Others convert fractions to decimals, multiply, then convert back into fractions. Matrisciano points out that in this exercise estimation is not an option—too much or too little of any one ingredient could ruin the whole batch.

This is not the kind of math class Matrisciano or her students' parents would have experienced. Gone are the multiplication tables, the drill-and-practice long division. In this Massachusetts public school where a so-called "reform curriculum" is used, Matrisciano aims to help students develop skills of reasoning, inquiry, and discovery, and to understand math concepts and principles. She doesn't give them the answers, or even show them what methods to use. "I want them to synthesize what they knew before and apply it to a situation that is like one they would meet in the real world," she says. Although it is tempting to tell them what methods to use to find the solution, she says, "every time I do, they don't get as much out of it. This is much more thoughtful."

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

M. Clayton. "Flaws in the Evaluation Process." Christian Science Monitor, May 30, 2000: 15.

Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989.

L. Darling-Hammond. "Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence." Education Policy Analysis Archives 8, no. 1 (January 1, 2000).

M. Huntley et. al. "Effects of Standards-Based Mathematics Education: A Study of the Core-Plus Mathematics Project Algebra and Functions Strand." Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 31, no. 3 (May 2000): 328-361.

D. Klein. "Math Problems: Why the U.S. Department of Education's Recommended Math Programs Don't Add Up." American School Board Journal 187, no.4 (April 2000): 52-57.

L. Ma. Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1999.

D.S. Macnab. "Forces for Change in Mathematics Education, The Case of TIMSS." Education Policy Analysis Archives 8, no. 15 (February 2000).

Mathematically Correct. PO Box 22083, San Diego, CA 92192-2083.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1906 Association Dr., Reston, VA 20191-9988; tel: 703-620-9840; fax: 703-476-2970.

Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000.