Software: No Math Until Homework's Done

Math education in the U.S. is a mess. Parents, educators, and politicians are squabbling over "standards-based" math, a prevalent teaching philosophy that emphasizes teamwork, creativity, and discovery over drills and memorization. The goals are O.K., but some schools have gone overboard, and basic math skills have suffered.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is planning to revise the standards. But as a parent, you may not want to wait. With the latest batch of kids' math CD-ROMs in hand, you don't have to. A broad selection of programs for PCs and Macs, mostly costing around $30, will help you drill in some basic information to supplement what your kids get in school (table).

You can begin by checking out the spiffed-up Math Blaster series from Davidson, owned by CUC International. Some reviewers have panned the use of repetitive drills and video game thrills in this series. But the games clearly hold kids' attention, and with math, that's half of the battle. Played on a PC that runs at 150 Mhz and has 16 MB of memory, or on an equivalent Mac, Math Blaster: Ages 6-9 (previously called Mega Math Blaster) delivers great graphics and game play. Children set the levels of difficulty and can print out scores and certificates at the end.

For older children, Math Blaster: Ages 9-12 and Math Blaster: Pre-Algebra are packed with puzzles and exercises that introduce equations, negative numbers, x and y values, and the like. Both programs include pure games that have nothing to do with the math. That annoys some parents. But most kids will move back and forth between the exercises and the games--which is a lot better than just switching on the TV. David Silver, the 11-year-old son of a BUSINESS WEEK colleague, tested both programs and found them nearly as engaging as his Sony PlayStation. For children 10 to 14, there's also a relentlessly hip, MTV-like program from Theatrix called Math Heads.

Younger kids, who served as my main guinea pigs, gave high marks to Math Workshop Deluxe, made by Broderbund Software and designed for 6- to 12-year-olds. It employs bowling gorillas, rockets, and other gizmos to teach fractions, decimals, and word problems. Knowledge Adventure's new title, JumpStart 2nd Grade: Math, offers more conceptual games, but the action is slower.

Obviously, tastes will vary. If possible, try programs out before buying. You can do that at many computer and software shops.

Some of the hottest titles don't involve any blasting or drilling. A good example is Broderbund's Logical Journey of the Zoombinis Deluxe (ages 9 and up). The first time we loaded it at home, I was skeptical. You have to shepherd a gang of odd little creatures across an imposing obstacle course. It requires trial and error, and inevitably, a lot of the critters get lost. I didn't immediately see the point and didn't think anyone was learning much. But my 7-year-old and his friend were entranced. They're still playing with it three weeks later, and learning a lot about grouping, graphing, and sorting.

PERSONAL TUTOR. For children under 7, there isn't much engaging math software on the market. One exception is Microsoft's Mathopolis, which comes bundled with reading and spelling software in a $54, four-disk set called My Personal Tutor. The developers clearly thought about how to combine drills and instruction. In Mathopolis, children add and subtract numbers to launch rockets, defeat animals in tug-of-war matches, or win at bingo, while parents adjust the level of difficulty.

The best feature is an animated tutor that monitors your child's progress and wanders onto the screen to provide tips when things aren't going smoothly. My testers seemed to welcome his intrusions. They listened to his explanations, practiced a little, and jumped back into the drills without a grumble or a yawn.

Microsoft isn't the only one to experiment in this vein. NumberMaze Challenge, from Great Wave Software, ages 5 to 11, includes tutorials but is hard to set up and requires grown-up supervision.

Lively math drills clearly turbocharge skills. But do they also deaden creativity? It'll be years before sociologists settle that question. Meanwhile, don't underestimate entertainment value. In most households, math programs will be something kids plunge into after finishing off real homework, just like Play Station games and Scooby-Doo reruns. If they're not fun, they'll gather dust. And besides, they're supposed to be gifts, right?

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