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See Inside July 2010

Readers Respond on "Reform or Re-Reform?"

Letters to the editor from the March 2010 issue of Scientific American

Reform or Re-reform?
In “Numbers War” [News Scan], Linda Baker’s treatment of our inquiry-based Discovering Mathematics series is filled with errors and naive claims. For instance, there was no “three-year pilot” of our texts, contrary to what Baker reported. The article repeats many unfounded criticisms of reform in mathematics education. For one, Baker describes the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) document as a volley in the war, although it is actually an effort to bring coherence and conceptual clarity to the most important topics in high school mathematics. She claims that NCTM reform “reshaped a generation of instruction,” when, in fact, few students have had a real opportunity to try a fully committed inquiry-based curriculum as envisioned by the NCTM.

Traditional math is the status quo in U.S. schools and predominates in U.S. textbooks. The most egregious distortion is when Baker writes, “Instead of having students memorize formulas and compute problems such as adding fractions, advocates of reform math encouraged students to develop their own visual representations of math concepts and use calculators to solve numerical tasks.”

In my 40 years of interacting with mathematics education professionals, I have never met a single one who does not want students to learn to add fractions. In fact, math education researchers around the world and here in the U.S. agree on the need for an inquiry-based approach that emphasizes conceptual understanding.

Steven Rasmussen
Publisher, Key Curriculum Press
Emeryville, Calif.

BAKER REPLIES: For this article, I interviewed professional math educators, mathematicians and math teachers, many of whom self-identified as reform math or traditional math advocates—or somewhere in between. Some were off the spectrum entirely. The consensus was that reform math had indeed reshaped a generation of math instruction but that the pendulum had since swung back toward the center, with many educators now advocating both conceptual and skill-based strategies. The article spotlighted a few cases in which various stakeholders felt this balanced approach was missing. Regarding fractions: the issue is not that people “do not want students” to learn to add fractions but whether or not they are actually teaching them to do so.

Plasma Display
Michael Moyer’s “Fusion’s False Dawn” might give the impression that informed scientists have become skeptical about fusion. This impression is incorrect. Fusion scientists consider their goal to be more tractable and relevant than ever before—and every one of several recently commissioned expert review committees has concurred, concluding that fusion energy should be actively pursued. Magnetic fusion devices have already in 1997 produced 16 million watts of fusion power. The challenges of plasma physics have been sufficiently met that we can confidently design devices that will make copious fusion reactions. ITER is one such device that will enable study of high-energy-gain plasma physics. Fusion researchers worldwide are discussing facilities from specialized experiments to a demonstration power plant to take on our next issues of materials, power extraction and tritium production in a reliable, continuously operating system.

Richard Hazeltine
Professor of physics, University of Texas at Austin
Miklos Porkolab
Director, Plasma Science and Fusion Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Stewart Prager
Director, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
Ronald Stambaugh
Vice president, Magnetic Fusion Energy Program, General Atomics

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