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Rich Schneider

Last modified: Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Conference seeks end to "Math Wars" by "Finding Common Ground"

March 7, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS -- Prospects for peace in the "Math Wars" are brighter, following a conference here funded by the National Science Foundation and Texas Instruments and hosted by the Mathematical Association of America.

The consequences of resolving disagreements that have pitted two main camps against each other about how best to teach mathematics in K-12 classrooms are enormous. Broadly put, research mathematicians are in one camp and mathematics educators are in the other.

Some 50 mathematicians, mathematics educators, and specialists in statistics and education technology attended the conference entitled, "Finding Common Ground" at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

Carl Cowen, dean of the School of Science at IUPUI and president of the Mathematical Association of America, said the conference was an important milestone.

The conference enabled mathematicians and mathematics educators, who have engaged in what has come to be known as the "Math Wars," to make significant progress in finding common ground where both sides agree on ways to improve mathematics learning in the United States, Cowen said.

Ongoing debates about the best way to teach math have stood in the way of these camps working together for the best interests of students in the United States, said Richard Schaar, a retired senior vice president at Texas Instruments who initiated the effort to find common ground.

The search for ways to improve the way children are taught mathematics has been underway since "new math" arrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s and disappeared a decade later, Schaar noted. Efforts to teach standards first developed by the National Council of Teachers in Mathematics in 1989 have yielded mixed results, he added.

"It isn't a question of going back to the good old days," said Schaar, who has a doctorate in mathematics. "There were no good old days."

Issues such as whether students in elementary school should use hand-held technology as they learn math has generated polarizing debates. Some argue teachers should not permit students to use any kind of technology as they learn basic number facts; others argue it's okay to use it, Schaar said.

"That leaves an elementary school teacher wondering what to do, Schaar said. "It turns out that there is common ground where people agree that kids need to know their basic number facts, and there is an appropriate use of technology to teach them those facts."

In addition to hammering out a process proving the methodology by which the various groups involved in K-12 mathematics education can come to a level of agreement on certain issues, conference participants worked on the development of key concepts that will help move mathematical education forward, Schaar said.

One such concept involves algebra. One of the leading indicators that a student will succeed in high school is passing a "good, solid algebra class," Schaar said. "But there is no common agreement on a definition for such a course, who should take it, and whether it should be taught in eighth grade or nintth grade."

Agreements on ways to improve mathematical education can't come soon enough, Schaar said.

The generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who entered their fields in the days of Sputnik are retiring. "We're not doing a good job of replacing them," Schaar said.

Adding to these mathematic woes is the fact that in the 21st century mathematics is more important than ever before. Not only does the competitive future of America depend upon it, but so do the employment prospects of the country's workforce.

"About four million kids graduate from high school annually. What kind of jobs will they have with poor math skills, when good math skills are required for what has become the 21st century equivalent of an assembly line worker?"

For more information about the Common Ground Conference, contact: Richard Schaar at; or Carl Cowen at