They say you can’t fight city hall—but a group of California parents calling itself Mathematically Correct (MC) has taken on the statehouse and won the right to restore a rigorous math curriculum to public education.

It is only just that the tide should begin turning in the former Golden State, which, because it boasts the biggest market for textbooks, has imparted to the rest of the states so many ghastly fads, from Whole Language to anti-American “history” to science-as-radical-environmentalism.

The “Whole Math” fad against which Mathematically Correct campaigned successfully is based on: a verbalizing and visualizing approach rather than an abstract, numerical one; a reliance upon concrete “manipulatives” (marbles, straws, etc.) in lieu of abstract number concepts; a demotion of the classroom teacher from leader to “co-discoverer” who “facilitates” rather than instructs; an emphasis on teamwork rather than measurable individual achievement; the use of calculators even in the lower grades for routine computation; a fixation on everyday, “real world” applications for math (balancing your checkbook, buying groceries, selling lemonade); and much, much talk about “process” and “method” and “critical,” “higher-order thinking” as opposed to memorization of facts and the specific content of the various domains of mathematics.

Whole Math represents a deep confusion of mathematics with arithmetic. It is a remedial math program for the innumerate masquerading as a reformed curriculum that will include those previously left out of the discipline.

The idea of “math without numbers” sounded dazzlingly innovative to many cutting-edge educators, but in attempting to convey any sort of mathematical proficiency to students, the miraculous new method broke down. Parents watched in horror as their children whipped out calculators to determine ten percent of 450. “Rainforest algebra” texts droned on multiculturally for 100 pages or so before getting around to presenting a single equation. Parents heard from their children how “fun and easy” math was now that they didn’t have to memorize those pesky multiplication tables or get marked down for not getting the “so-called” right answer.

In California, and everywhere else Whole Math was introduced, state test scores nose-dived. One-half to two-thirds of freshmen admitted to the Cal State university system were found to need at least one year of remedial math, despite being drawn from the top third of graduating seniors.

Among the more horrified parents were those who founded MC, “dedicated to the proposition that 2-1-2=4.” Cofounder Martha Schwartz, a college geology professor, vividly recalls the night she and her husband “discovered we were not alone” in their reaction to the new New Math.

It was October 1995. Martha was despondent over “the damage done to good kids and the suffering of the best teachers” as Whole Math was forced through by the usual crowd of activist ideologues at her college. Her husband Rick, a high-school chemistry teacher who had already clashed with his department over the attempted introduction of a “whole” science curriculum, had been invited to accept an award at an American Chemical Society meeting in San Diego. One of the speakers, molecular biologist Michael McKeown of the Salk Institute, closed his remarks with a critique of Whole Math. “After a minute or so of this. Rick and I were almost jumping up and down in our chairs. Within a week or so the three of us had formed Mathematically Correct.”

The molecular process of resistance had just begun. Relying on e-mail and the Internet, the fledgling pressure group contacted everyone it had heard of who dissented from the new order in math education. All the individuals contacted had hitherto believed their various school districts’ solemn protestations that they “were the only ones who had a problem with the new math reforms.”

Paul Clopton of UC San Diego, instrumental in setting up MC’s “2+2=4” website (, notes that, “when parents get together, the bureaucrats’ first line of defense fades away. As each new parent told their story, we were constantly re-energized.” Martha Schwartz says simply, “Every time I talk to another child who has been cheated, I wish I could do more.”

At first, MC’s efforts focused on convincing local districts—Petaluma, Novato, Escondido, San Diego, Torrance, and others—to get rid of existing Whole Math programs. Design engineer Larry Gipson, another cofounder of MC, led a successful fight in Escondido because “I didn’t want my kids experimented on. They were telling the kids to invent their own math out of thin air.” Mr. Gipson formed Parents for Math Choice and lobbied his school board for just that: choice between traditional and whole approaches. Today, 70 percent of district parents opt for traditional, and parental permission is required before any experimental program is implemented

After some other successes at the local level, MC decided to aim for the overhaul of the state math framework. Revised every seven years, this framework dictates the content and methodology of prospective textbooks. The group pushed for tough new K-12 content standards and for MC to be represented on the appointed Academic Standards Commission that would write them.

Larry Gipson had learned that victory was “more about beating the district politically than arguing them to death.” Toward this end, MC developed working relationships with two Republican assemblymen, Steve Baldwin and Howard Kaloogian. Group members peppered legislators with data regarding Whole Math’s dismal showing on all kinds of tests, wrote open letters and critiques, and were frequently on hand to testify. Assemblyman Baldwin reports that, “when Mathematically Correct submitted testimony in person or in writing, everyone took notice,” and Assemblyman BCaloogian adds that “being right gave them a great deal of leverage in trying to change the curriculum.”

And change it they have. The math standards finally adopted by the state of California last year are a realization of Mathematically Correct’s belief that, in Michael McKeown’s words, “Mastery of the basics is the key prerequisite for effective problem-solving, and one of the most effective ways to build understanding.” Williamson Evers, who played an important role in writing the new standards, explains that “we put them in plain English. . . . We took out the fuzzy math. We beefed them up. And we unscrambled the courses so Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II exist again.”

The new standards have been denounced by California’s superintendent of public instruction. Delaine Eastin, who has taken it upon herself to instruct teachers to ignore them. But new Governor Gray Davis seems disinclined to backtrack on the standards, a sign that the public-relations battle may be won— at least for the moment. Meanwhile, an independent review by the Fordham Foundation of state math standards recently rated California’s number one and even compared them favorably to Japan’s. Distinguished mathematician Ralph Raimi, coauthor of the Fordham review, says of MC, “They are not parochial. In working on California details they’re also lighting a path for others. . . . And unlike their opponents, they listen to mathematicians, whereas those who excoriate them are invariably from the math education, not the mathematical, community.”

These opponents truly believe, as one of their number declared, that “it no longer makes sense to teach children standard algorithms.” And they are quite willing to portray MC and its allies as hooded agents of the Christian right trying to drag children back into the Dark Ages of rote memorization, “drill and kill,” and the Right Answer.

In fact, most MC members are politically liberal (this is California, after all), even if academically traditional. Martha Schwartz, during her fight to restore algebra to the Torrance schools, was most annoyed by

having to write a letter pointing out that as a secular Jewish geology teacher and registered Democrat, I was not, as charged, a Christian fundamentalist conservative—but noting that those were all legal things to be. . . . People would actually say things like “All you college people care about is skills and knowledge.”

Paul Clopton echoes her:

One of the most upsetting things was a statement by a Palo Alto teacher in connection with the struggle there. To paraphrase, the teacher said, “Those parents are only concerned because they want their own children to be competitive in college.” Were we supposed to feel shameful?

Mrs. Schwartz adds that she is “always outraged when people claim females and minorities can’t learn math or science like ‘regular people.'” Lest that sound like a distortion of her opponents’ real views, listen to Jack Price, then head of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in a debate with Michael McKeown on San Diego radio in April 1996: “What we have now is nostalgia math. It’s the mathematics that we’ve always had, that is good for the most part for high-socioeconomic-status Anglo males.” Later in the debate. Price asserts:

We have a great deal of research that has been done showing that women, for example, and minority groups do not learn the same way. They have the capability of learning, but . . . the teaching strategies that we use with them are different from those that we have been able to use in the past when . . . most of those who did graduate and go on to college were the Anglo males.

“Now Jack,” asks the interviewer, “in what way would a woman or a minority learn [math] differently than I learned it?”

Jack: “All of the research that has been done with gender differences or ethnic differences has been—males, for example, learn better deductively in a competitive environment. . . . [W]omen have a tendency to learn better in a collaborative effort when they are doing inductive reasoning.”

Interviewer: “What does that mean, inductive reasoning?”

Jack: “Well, they are able to generalize from a number of different kinds of— I can’t think of the word I want, but, from a number of specific instances they can make a generalization.”

Mr. Price never explained how it is possible to teach math to people who cannot learn mathematically, nor why a traditional pedagogy that teaches math mathematically to those capable of learning math should be scrapped in favor of one that insults and handicaps the best potential learners. And, of course, he never addressed the most bizarre aspect of the whole situation: why a high socioeconomic status Anglo male like himself should be pimping for a sorry lot of feel-good nonsense like Whole Math whose entire premise is that the Anglo male’s day is done, and good riddance.

They say that as California goes, so goes the nation. If true. Mathematically Correct’s victory is a major blow against the conversion of mathematics into “math appreciation” in our nation’s schools.