Math Wars Explained
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When you mention Common Core the reaction you are most likely to get is, “Oh that math is so stupid. I hate Common Core.” Common Core math standards lend themselves well to being taught using what has alternatively been called “reform math,” “new math,” fuzzy math,” etc. What many people don’t realize is that this version of math, where process and “deeper understanding” is stressed has actually been with us for a very long time. It has never endured lasting popularity perhaps because it has never produced good mathematicians which, theoretically, is the goal of a quality math education program. Barry Garelick has written a great book, Math Education in the U.S.: Still Crazy After All These Years which chronicles the progress of reform math and, through recounting of actual confrontations with school boards and curriculum directors, shows how the reformers work to keep this form of math education in the public schools.
Garelick was a trained mathematician with the US EPA who went back to school later in life to become a teacher. He has written for The Atlantic, Heartland and Education News of his experiences helping his daughter navigate reform math in school and his numerous reviews of textbooks used to teach math, especially in the early grades. At one time he worked for a Democratic Senator as part of a program to give employees a chance to gain experience and knowledge of legislative and congressional procedures. There he hoped to shed light on the problem with reform math being pushed in the public schools thinking “surely if I can get some folks on the Hill to understand the problem we can make some headway in fixing it.” He was young and naive at the time.
He identified the link between the National Science Foundation, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and reform math, which belittled what it called “rote memorization” in favor of discovery and conceptual understanding. This was the beginning of the Math Wars. Despite enormous evidence in the literature that such learning was not effective in preparing students for higher level math, the reformers were winning the math wars. Once Lynne Cheney came out against fuzzy math, the debate moved solidly into the political realm and the Senator was no longer interested in hearing about studies, data and the 200 math professors from around the country who objected to the USDED’s recommendation of NSF approved reform math programs. The Wars would continue with the weakest side winning.
Garelick recalls a meeting of the Washington DC School Board where they were planning to vote on a new math curriculum designed around the University of Chicago produced Everyday Math program. Many parents will both recognize and be infuriated by the bulldozing done by the administrators of that district to get their preselected program through. He wrote, “Like any slight of hand, once you know the scripts, the techniques used at public hearings are not subtle.” The opening statement of Dr. Hilda Ortiz, Chief Academic Officer of WDCSD, frames the debate as the reformers want it to be seen. “The debate is traditional versus nontraditional. If you look at the history of traditional versus nontraditional, the traditionalists are the folks that want things to stay the same way. But when you think about our success as a nation in mathematics, I’m not really sure that we have been so successful.” Got that? Traditional = old thinking, stogy, ineffective. New Math = smarter thinking, hip, shiny and effective.
Garelick does a masterful job of breaking down her statement and showing how each element is provably wrong, including her final statement of proof that the traditional method doesn’t work because as adults we don’t retain what we learned of math in school. One study of adults in five different countries shows that what American adults can recall is about the same as other adults who were taught with traditional math programs. It is a condition of lack of use of that math, not a feature of how it was taught. And recall can easily be boosted with a few refreshers.
Districts determined to use reform math programs have an answer for every objection. In the WDCSD case, they knew the objections because dozens of parents took the time to write well thought out, documented critiques of the program in emails sent to board members prior to the public hearing. The CAO alternatively excused the teachers, the textbooks, the training and the students for the failure of the EM program in other districts. She gave the public no way to criticize any specific element of EM, even though her own argument ultimately refuted itself.
Chapter 4 Reform Math: Symptoms and Prognosis covers and rebuts the reformers talking points:
- “In the past students were taught by rote; we teach understanding.
- Drill and kill is bad.
- The guide on the side, not the sage on the state.
- Just in time learning.
- Ambiguity is a great way to learn.
- Flip the classroom!
- We’re making students think like mathematicians. (hint, they have no idea how mathematicians think.)
- Group Learning.”
Garelick tries to explain, in terms most parents can understand, why traditional methods of teaching math, where students are given direct instruction on new topics and required to practice those techniques and yes, even required to memorize certain math facts, are the most effective in preparing students to master higher level math concepts. He answers the question “Why do they want K-5 children to learn to learn to do math this goofy way?” By the time you are done reading you will understand the why, but be no happier about it.
The book unfortunately does not offer a surefire way to oppose such curriculum in your district. It does praise older teachers who know the hoax of reform math and who supplement weak math curriculae with other traditional materials. It makes it pretty clear that the performance gap will continue to exist because conscientious middle to upper middle income parents will supplement weak math programs with teaching at home, tutoring or secondary programs like Kumon and Khan Academy. One angle that could be explored as a foil to reform math is its effect on the number of students requiring IEPs. Garelick notes that many students labeled LD in math have demonstrated the ability to catch up to their peers once they are given direct instruction in traditional math approaches, usually through IEPs or, more recently, Response To Intervention (RtI). Districts are always looking for ways to cut costs and use limited resources more effectively. Doing away with reform math programs that require so many kids to be taught math a second time by a separate teacher could be a great cost saver.
Garelick’s book is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle form.