WILLA v7 - Teachers Write: From the Schools - The War Against Whole Language and Reform-Oriented Mathematics: Seeking a Light in Dark Times

Volume 7
Fall 1998

Elementary Member at Large

The War Against Whole Language and Reform-Oriented Mathematics: Seeking a Light in Dark Times

Vicki Zack, fifth grade teacher, St. George's School, Montreal, Quebec

This past year has been one in which I as a teacher and researcher in language arts and in mathematics have felt besieged on multiple fronts. There has been an all-out assault launched in the United States on the whole language approach as well as upon reform-oriented mathematics, as readers of the WILLA journal may of course be well aware. The attack is directed at the approaches of some teachers and some researchers, namely those using holistic, meaning-based approaches in the classroom and qualitative approaches in research endeavors. 1 am dismayed at what is going on. I would like to talk with you about (1) what the 'traditional' side is saying? (2) why some teachers' and researchers' views are being attacked, and (3) why 1 intend to fight.

The storm has been gathering for a while. In last year's column1, I voiced my concern with the rumblings from the right about 'family values' as they sought to censor books about gays in classrooms, and my grave worries about groups which were making efforts to demonize curriculum innovations such as whole language. It has become clear over the past year that the efforts have been mobilized, and that attacks on public education have become increasingly well organized and deliberate. I first became aware of the Reading Excellence Act during the NCTE conference in Detroit in November 1997. There has been extensive talk of the 'Math Wars' in California and in the USA. I have been following the pro and con arguments, with personal reactions ranging from anger to speechlessness to sadness. I will outline here my perspective, and will share with you sources which have been of help to me in articulating coherent responses at different levels — to researchers, school administrators, fellow teachers, and parents.

(1) What is the 'traditional' side saying?

What follows below summarizes the issues all too briefly. I am especially conscious of, and wary of, oversimplifying and dichotomizing, since this reflects the modus operandiof the 'traditional side. The traditional side posits a 'simple' approach. The "good- old-dayers" contend that once upon a time there were good schools in which teachers taught, and students listened, memorized the basic facts first (which served as the foundation), and learned. (Note1) The words 'reform,' 'whole language', 'problem- solving', have become synonymous with sloppiness, an absence of standards', with 'touchy-feelyness', that is, helping the child's self-esteem at the costof academic achievement; in some areas of the USA, they have become synonymous with something evil. For the 'traditional' side it is an either or situation: Either 'basics' or the 'new' approaches (where in actuality both must co-exist in a meaningful way). As a result, anything reflecting the 'new' must be eliminated.

The question then is: Where does that leave those of us who are striving for far more? As William Ayers said recently: "How can we justify a commitment to critical reflection, aesthetic awareness, open-ended growth, or intercultural understanding to a public preoccupied with the need to focus on skills and proficiencies alone?" (Ayers, 1998, p. 4). The answer is that we who stand for the principles Ayers mentions must mobilize and continue to press for meaningful engagement.

(2) Why are some teachers' and researchers' views being dismissed?

It is not unusual that teachers' views are disregarded, although it is of course disheartening. However, it has shaken me to hear noted researchers dismissed, ignored, and censored. Tannen (1998) has done a fine job of illustrating how debates in the media and elsewhere are orchestrated, how positions are oversimplified and dichotomized, and how intelligent individuals are made to sound like buffoons (Note 2). The body of research which has served as a basis for the change in approaches to teaching language arts and mathematics has been disregarded, and supposedly refuted.New rulings and curricular changes in California for example have been based upon research reports by Grossen, Carnine and others, who have lauded experimental studies, and have dismissed all qualitative research studies (see Sowder, 1998). There are critiques by a number of researchers which have shown in turn that the studies by Grossen, Carnine and others are based upon misreadings and distortions, overstatement of the research and overgeneralizations of the findings. (In regard to the language arts area, see Allington and Woodside-Jiron (1997), and Taylor's (1998) recent book, as well as the Murphy and Dudley-Marling (1998) editorial in Language Arts. In reference to the mathematics, see Becker and Jacob (1998).Despite these responses and critiques, the California State Board of Education hasmandated a return to traditional ways, and other states may follow. The most recent information I have leads me to believe that in California, mathematics textbooks have been mandated by the State Board of Education for use in all elementary and secondary schools in September, 1998, andall Standards-based approaches will be disallowed (Becker & Jacob, 1998). In regard to language arts, if/when the Reading ExcellenceAct is passed, all American school we be obligedto work with a phonics-based, basal reader scheme. Such is already the case in regard to the reading program inCalifornia and Texas. Recent regressive changes in bilingual education in California represent yet another sad story. These are indeed dark times for education.

(3) Why fight?

1 for one cannot go back. I have seen the results of open, progressive, meaning-based approaches in reading and mathematics, and cannot return to using closed, traditional, algorithmic approaches. I must show that the children can and do indeed master the basics within the reform-oriented approaches, but do as well go far beyond. In language arts and in mathematics, the children in my classes have shown themselves capable of dealing with rich and complicated content, of responding deeply and articulately, of thinking critically, and of solving and posing problems (see for example, Zack, 1990, 1996, 1997). 1 have of course not been able to do comparative studies within my one classroom. However, in all research studies in mathematics education which have contrasted open and traditional approaches (Boaler, 1998; Lappan, 1998; Maher, 1991; Resnick, 1990; Sigurdson & Olson, 1992) the findings have been that open approaches to teaching result in increased achievement, even on the traditional tests which are not compatible with the teaching approaches used. However, such research is ignored in the media and public debates. 1 have therefore been collecting material. 'building up my own arsenal' in order to provide an articulate response to questions asked by university researchers, administration, parents, and fellow teachers. I mentioned above my intention to use the work by Allington and Woodside-Jiron, and Taylor, in relation to critiques vis-à-vis reading research, and Becker and Jacob in relation to mathematics research. Two sources 1 will be sharing with parents in our area in regards to the ' math wars' are in recent NCIM Newsletters. one by the incoming President of NCTM, Glenda Lappan (1998), and the other by a parent. Marie Cocco (1997). The NCTE Commission on Reading is in the process of Preparing brochures which will help teachers answer questions from parents and the general public in support of holistic approaches to reading and Writing. We need to actively counter political intervention in language arts and mathematics education.

(4) The fight to keep open-ended approach" in place is especially important for girls and women

We at WILLA are aware of the needs of women in regard to relationships, and connectedness, due to the literature (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, Gilligan, and others). I will offer something from the mathematics domain. A recent Study bY Jo Boaler (1997a, 1997b, 1998) in England is especially thought- provoking in regard to our concerns at WILLA. She examined the intricate and complex ways in which the different approaches to learning—"traditional" and "open"—in two schools influenced how the secondary level students fared in mathematics, boys and girls. (I know of no such study vis-à-vis language arts/ literature, but it is intriguing to hypothesize how the Boaler findings might relate.) In the school with the 'traditional' approach, many of the students experienced mathematics which made little sense to them and although both boys and girls were negatively affected by this, the greatest disadvantages were experienced by the girls, mainly because of their preferred learning styles and ways of working (1997b, p. 110). Both the girls and the boys favoured the 'open', discussion- oriented project approach in the second school. When changes were made in the second school (which due to political pressure adopted the 'traditional' textbook curriculum), the boys did adjust to the closed, more traditional approach, but it turned the female cohort 'off." The boys tended to rush through questions to achieve Speed, if not understanding. The girls would not do this. Boaler felt that the girls seemed unable to suppress their desire for understanding and continued to strive towards it—which probably worked to their disadvantage when the orientation changed to closed approaches with the pace, competition, and pressure that that entailed (1997b, p. 122).

Our open-ended ways of working are vital for both male and female students. Think of what no or few stories and works of literature, no journals, and no response logs would mean. The energy, passion, creativity and self-actualization which we have at times seen would not occur if schools adopt a skills-based approach in language arts/literature study, and mathematics. A just-published work in honour of Maxine Greene, read recently, has resonated deeply with me. 1 had never realized until this reading the extent to which Greene has waged a long-standing fight all of her life, for justice, social criticism, self-actualization, invitations to explore identity etc. (Ayers & Miller, 1998). "We want to enable the young to see and hear more reflectively, more intelligently, more critically. We want to help them come awake to deception, to mystification, to distortion. We want them to overcome passivity as well as mere conventionality. We want them to take their own initiatives as they come together in dialogue about what they see and what they hear and what they feel. We want them to care, to wonder, to become" (Greene, 1992, p. 2). This kind of teaching and learning does not happen through regulated, lockstep curricula and 'teacherproof' materials. We need to dispel the idea that teaching and learning is only about skill and method, and convey to the public some of the complexity involved. Maxine Greene's work and life, and the recent writing of others in honour of her (Ayers & Miller, 1998) have in this last while been a light in dark times for me. I take heart from her lead and that of countless other researchers and fellow teachers (Robert Davis, Lynn ButlerKisber, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Jerome Harste, Glenda Lappan, Carolyn Maher, Mary Maguire, Tom Romberg, and so many others) as 1 reach out to engage with others in the continuing conversation.

Note 1.

Hirsch is a proponent of basic skills approach. Citing math education experts Anderson, Geary and Siegler about what research shows math students need, Hirsch said recently, : "They would tell you that only through intelligently directed and repeated practice, leading to fast, autocratic recall of math facts, and facility in computation and algebraic manipulation can one do well at real world problem solving' (Hirsch, 1997, p. 6 cited by Becker & Jacob, 1998, p. 4). Becker and Jacob noted that Hirsch received a standing ovation from the California State Board of Education, and added that "indications are that the SBE is proceeding, based on his recommendations" (1988, p. 4).

Note 2.

It has been just so with, for example, Ken Goodman in the language arts/ psycholinguistic s area and Tom Romberg in mathematics. (In regard to Romberg, see the Cheney Op-Ed page, as well as the Ratnesar article in Ime, August 25, 1997).


Allington, Richard L., & Woodside Jiron, Haley. (1997). Adequacy of a program of research and of a 'research synthesis' in shaping educational policy. Unpublished paper. National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement, University at Albany, State University of New York, 1400 Washington Aye.,Albany, NY 12222. www.albany.edu/cela

Avers, William. (1998). Doing philosophy: Maxine Greene and the pedagogy of possibility. In W. C. Avers & Janet L. Miller (Eds.), A light in dark times: Maxine Greene and the unfinished conversation. (pp. 3-10). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Avers, William C. & Miller, Janet L. (Eds,), A light in dark times: Maxine Greene and the unfinished conversation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Becker, Jerry P. & Jacob, Bill. (1998).'Math War' developments in the United States (California). Unpublished document, 9 pages. Jerry Becker, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 6290 14601 <jbeckeT@siu.edu

Boaler, Jo. (1997a). Equity, empowerment and different ways of knowing. Special Issue: Gender and Learning Settings. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 9(3), pp., 325342.

Boaler, J. (1997b). Experiencing school mathematics: Teaching styles, sex and setting. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

Boaler, J. (1998). Open and closed mathematics approaches: Student experiences and understandings. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29(1), pp. 41-62.

Cheney, Lynne. (1997). Once again, basic skills fall prey to a fad. [Op-Ed page]. New York Times, August 11, 1997, p. A-19.

Cocco, Marie. (1997, December). Confessions of the world's worst math thinker. NCTM News Bulletin , December 1997, pp. 910.

Dudley-Marling, Curt, & Murphy, Sharon. (1998). Editorial. Language Arts, 75(4), pp. 252254. See as well their editorials in 1997: 74(8), pp. 592-594, and 1998: 75(2), pp. 88-89.

Greene, Maxine. (1992). Lincoln Center Institute Report, p. 2.

Laffey, Martharose. (1998, August 26). e-mail note: Re participation in a National Congress for Public Education, to be held September 11-13, 1998. mlafkvCa)ncs. org

Lappan, Glenda (1998, July/August). NCTM responds to "Math Wars" report. NCTM News Bulletin, 35(1), p. 1 & 4.

Maher, Carolyn. (199 1). Is dealing with mathematics as a thoughtful subject compatible with Maintaining satisfactory test scores? A nine-year study. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, -10, pp. 225-248.

Ratnesar, Romesh. (1997, August 25). This is math? Time, pp. 4243.

Resnick, Lauren. (1990). From protoquantities to number sense. In G. Booker, P. Cobb, & M. T. Mendicuti (Eds.), Proceedings of the Fourteenth International Conference for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME 14) (pp. 305-311). Mexico.

Sigurdson, S. & Olson, A. (1992). Teaching mathematics with meaning. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 11, pp. 37-57.

Sowder, Judith T. (1998). Editorial. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29(4), pp. 376-377.

Tannen, Deborah. (1998). The argument culture: Moving from debate to dialogue. Toronto, Canada: Random House.

Taylor, Denny. (1998). Beginning read and the spin doctors of science: The political campaign t change America's mind about how children learn to read. Urbana, II: NCTE.

Zack, Vicki. (1991). It was the worst of times: Learning about the Holocaust through literature. Language Arts. 68 (1), pp. 42-48

______.( 1996). Nightmare issues: Children's responses to racism and genocide in literature. The New Advocate: For Those Involved with Young People and Their Literature, 9(4), pp. 297-308.

______. (1997). "You have to prove us wrong": Proof at the elementary school level. In E. Pelikonen (Ed.), Proceedings of the Twenty-Firs Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME 2 1) (Vol. 4, pp. 291-298). Lahti, Finland, July 14-19, 1997.

Reference Citation:

Zack, V. (1998). "The War Against Whole Language and Reform-Oriented Mathematics: Seeking a Light in Dark Times."WILLA, Vol. VII, pp. 36, 37-39.

by Radiya Rashid