• Steve Baldwin

Liberals dumb down Math

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

California Political Review

September/October 1997


A Curious Syllogism


Good schools teach reading and math. Students in our Democrat-controlled schools can barely read and know little math. Therefore Democrats are dedicated to good schools.


Steve Baldwin



We hear it all the time. Democrats are pro-public education; Republicans are anti-public education. It’s a durable myth so often repeated even many Republicans believe it. But the truth is Democrats have played a major role in promoting failed education theories that have placed California public schools among the nation’s worst. Indeed, the superintendent of public instruction has been a Democrat since Max Rafferty in the 1960’s and the Democrats have long controlled the vast majority of California’s local boards of education.


California is tied for last nationally in fourth grade reading scores on the most recent National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. We are in the bottom fifth for fourth grade math scores on the same test. The millions of dollars our colleges and universities now spend on remedial education further demonstrate our K-12 system’s failure to teach basic skills.


Recent research tells why our students perform so poorly. No, it has nothing to do with per-pupil spending (the lowest spending states perform best); it is not facilities (some third-world countries out-perform us using shacks for schools); it is not a shortage of credentialed teachers (most private schools are, on average, out-performing public schools and employ mostly non-credentialed teachers); it is not a lack of psychological “intervention services” (a article in the August 19 issue of AMA Health Insight shows that children who received intervention services early perform no better than other children); and it is not class size (Japanese classrooms with far more students out-perform ours).


The cause of California’s lackluster performance is methodology. We have adopted every fad promoted by federally-funded education theorists: cooperative learning, inventive spelling, “new new” math, whole language, even ebonics. A ray of hope appeared last year when Republicans controlled the Assembly and pushed through a series of back-to-basics bills.


As Education Committee chairman, I led this movement. It consisted of several bills requiring math textbooks to focus on computational skills (can you imagine that?), requiring all new teachers to pass a test demonstrating phonies competency, creating incentives for teachers to be re-trained in phonics, and setting aside funds for school districts to purchase phonics-based reading texts. We also passed budget language prohibiting use of state funds for the discredited whole language approach to teaching reading.


Criticism from the Democrat-dominated education associations and unions began immediately. The California Reading Association derided the reforms (surprise!). The California Association of Teachers of English went so far as to memo its members warning them to “Guard against an overemphasis on phonics and spelling.” The California Teachers Association argued the phonics reforms were ideal only for children with disabilities, but not suitable for other children. With the education establishment’s Who’s Who spreading such misrepresentations, it is no wonder hundreds of school boards have tried to circumvent the law by, for instance, contracting with well-known whole language advocates to conduct the “phonics” teacher training, a practice so flagrant the state Board of Education voted in March to audit districts suspected of doing so.


More serious, however, was the Democrat effort to end funding for the phonics training program for teachers in the 1997-98 budget unveiled last April. The Democrats re-directed the funds to several feel-good education programs having no impact on academic performance, let alone reading. Fortunately, during budget negotiations they were persuaded that gutting the state’s most important reading program was foolish politics and the funds were restored to the budget. Nonetheless, this brazen Democrat attempt to undermine the only reading program that might actually reverse California’s decade-long slide to the bottom shocked many observers who thought the Democrats were education reformers.


Unfortunately, whole language is not the Democrats’ only idiotic reading program. They also support bilingual education that has kept generations of Hispanic kids from learning English. They came up with “ebonics,” which sparked national criticism when the Oakland Unified School District was exposed using it. But ebonics is a state-wide program designed by Education Department bureaucrats and was never limited to Oakland. A Department-published ebonics handbook is currently used by districts in Berkeley, Compton, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Bernardino, and Stockton.


One page of the ebonics handbook is titled “Kill These Myths,” and lists this statement as a myth: “Standard English is the correct way to speak at all times.” Later the handbook defines ebonies as a separate “black language” and says children should he taught the appropriate time and place to use ebonics. “Michael Jackson dances” is portrayed as “one” way to convey this thought. “Michael Jackson be dancing” is listed as an alternative!


When I fired off a letter to the Assembly Education committee’s Democrat chairman, Kerry Mazzoni, requesting that she hold a hearing on the Education Department’s role in promoting a program the Ku Klux Klan would be proud of, she sent back a three page letter justifying ebonics. “The program,” Mazzoni wrote, “recognizes the unique language background of many of the [Oakland] district’s students while transitioning them to standard English,” which, of course, never happens.


The news on the math front is not much better. Almost all math books approved by the state Curriculum Commission teach “new new” math, despite legislation requiring all math texts to each “basic computational skills.” The fuzzy math cadres hold that we should not be obsessed with multiplication tables, algebra formulas, drill exercises, etc. because we should allow our children to compose their own mathematical formulas

freely. After all, as with whole language, if given enough creative space, students will learn on their own! This is bunk, but hey, the books have pretty pictures, the kids think they’re fun, so why not?


California’s approved math books do conform to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards which, incredibly, attack the “longstanding preoccupation with computational and other traditional skills,” the focus of traditional math texts.

On March 22, just minutes before the state Curriculum Commission voted on a new series of math books, Democrat Speaker Cruz Bustamante removed me from the Commission, thereby eliminating any opposition to the feel good math juggernaut. All the trendy math books were then approved, insuring our children yet another generation of texts so weak on computation skills they will leave many students unable to work even at a fast food place where they must at least be able to count hamburgers!


What is most shocking about the textbook adoption process is that several traditional math publishers, such as Saxon, have provided the Curriculum Commission with reams of research showing dramatic gains in math performance wherever its books are used. No “new new” math publisher has ever provided any field data of this sort. Incredibly, even though Saxon is probably the most successful math book in the country, it is not on California’s “approved” textbook list. Not surprisingly, most of California’s high-performing private schools (and home schoolers) use reading and math books also not on the state’s “approved” list.


So, if reading and math basics are not taught in our schools, what is?


CPR Education correspondent Assemblyman Steve Baldwin (AD 77) was Education Committee Chairman in 1996.

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