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Re-Examinining a Math Skirmish

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I've had a lot of people tell me there's been a reduction, however slight or gradual, in the level of bluster and acrimony emanating from various combatants in the so-called "math wars" in recent years.

To the extent that there's an easing of the harshest rhetoric, I would trace it partly to the release of "Curriculum Focal Points" by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 2006. Much of the anger from parents, mathematicians, and others who believe schools have gone too far in promoting "fuzzy math" at the expense of traditional problem-solving methods was directed at NCTM. "Focal Points," a blueprint for ordering early-grades math lessons, won over some of the organization's critics. The document calls for a more focused and coherent early-grades math curriculum, with an emphasis on certain crucial topics, like whole numbers, fractions, and quick recall of number facts. "Focal Points" reflects a growing consensus that A) the current math curriculum is overcrowded and confusing for teachers and students; and B) creating a more focused curriculum and encouraging students to master certain key topics lay the groundwork for their foray into more difficult math later.

By no means am I suggesting that debates about math curriculum are going away. To believe that, I'd have to ignore the heated comments that roll into my in-box when I write a story about one curricular approach or another. (I often forget which side of the "math wars" I'm supposed to be on. Then one of these commenters will helpfully remind me.)

You could also make the argument that in a nation where what gets taught in schools can vary considerably from state to state and district to district, debates about math curriculum are inevitable, and in fact, a vital check on policymakers' decisionmaking.

This story, about a debate over math curriculum in Palo Alto, Calif., shows why we're not likely to see debates over math curriculum go away any time soon. But I'm also highlighting it because it reveals a few of the undercurrents at work in debates over curriculum, which tend to get lost in the tangled forest that is the math wars.

In one sense, the debate is familiar: A group of parents are questioning why the district appears to be favoring one curriculum, in this case Everyday Math, over another, enVision Math, and a third one, Singapore Math, that some of them seem to like best of all.

Some parents said Everyday Math doesn't place a strong enough emphasis on traditional problem-solving methods. (The program did get a qualified, positive review from the federal What Works Clearinghouse, not easy to come by.) And as is the case in many districts, part of the parents' concerns seems to be that the lessons in the textbooks look much different from those they're familiar with from their days in the classroom, years before.

But there are issues in play. Some district officials said Singapore Math didn't offer an approach that could serve students at a broad range of ability levels, including English-language learners. Others applauded enVision Math's focus on "depth" but worried that it was too easy and "treats math as a sequence of little ideas rather than big ideas."

One parent quoted in the story, a recent transplant from Minnesota, said he was having to supplement the Everyday Math lessons with after-school work because the approach was so different from what his son used in his previous district—a common problem in a nation with a student population as mobile as ours, I suspect.

"This is a difficult choice," one parent said in written comments about the math curricula, which the board asked for. "Well-meaning parents should not be able to vote based on five minutes of Google research."

Which raises another question, in all of these skirmishes: Where are parents getting their information about the various math curricula? Is there any emerging consensus on the math curriculum at early grades? What do debates like the one in Palo Alto say about where these debates are going?

13 Comments

Sean, I wish you would say which side you are on. Maybe you have, given that you seem to think that Everyday Math must be good if it got a good rating from the What Works Clearinghouse. Let's take a closer look at that.

The Deparment of Education’s “What Works Clearinghouse” which evaluates research on the various math programs, reviewed 61 Everyday Math studies. The findings: Of those 61 studies, none met evidence standards, 4 met evidence standards with reservations and 57 did not meet evidence screens. Of the remaining four, the WWC found Everyday Mathematics to have potentially positive effects on math achievement based on one study alone: the 2001 Riordan & Noyce study. Just so everyone is on the same page, Pendred Noyce has a vested interest in Everyday Math in that she has formed associations with several reform math initiatives, at least one dedicated to implementation of Everyday Math: COMAP, for which she serves on the Board of Directors.
So, you have an allowable sample size of just one, from what range of data? And this allows people to make any conclusion? Plus I would hardly call the one study independent.

You also raise an interesting question in your post. Where are parents getting their information about the various math curricula? Is there any emerging consensus on the math curriculum at early grades? What do debates like the one in Palo Alto say about where these debates are going?

I can tell you that this isn't the first time parents in Palo Alto have protested. They objected to a program called MathLand in 1995, and the confrontation can be said to be the start of the Math Wars. At that time, the parents won. California's math standards were revamped and are probably the best in the nation. Unfortunately, schools and school districts find ways to get around them, and programs like Everyday Math enter the scene. And just so you know, Singapore Math was one of the programs the California Dept of Education approved last year for use in California schools.

As for where parents get their information, there has been plenty written about the snake oil that passes for math programs. The parents in Palo Alto tend to be highly educated people, many of them engineers, who can tell a good math program from a bad one. There has been a consensus among many parents, and not just in California, that these math programs do not provide students with the math content they need to succeed in algebra and higher later on. The debates between schools who insist this snake oil is good for their kids has put parents in the position of having to do the equivalent of proving that when you jump out of an airplane without a parachute, you die. They know that students don't learn what they ain't been taught, and these programs do not teach much math. This has been stated repeatedly by math professors, engineers, and scientists, who are told by the educationists who rule the debate that they simply don't know what they are talking about.

Five minutes worth of Googling will bring up sites such as www.nychold.com, and www.mathematicallycorrect.com both of which contain much information about these programs. I myself have written a few articles about them. The President's National Advisory Panel on
Mathematics has made recommendations on what content students should master in order to be ready for algebra in 8th grade.

Unfortunately, the advent of the NCTM's Focal Points have not lessened the debates, nor the adoption of the atrocity-based programs such as Everyday Math and Investigations. The snake-oil salesmen seem to prevail and convince board after board that their products satisfy the focal points. School boards in turn tell parents that the old way of doing math failed thousands of students.

I'd like to have numbers and test scores for the numbers of students who have failed because of the traditional math programs. I have numbers of my own which I'd be happy to share with you and your readers.

Yes, Sean, there may seem to be a level of reduction in the bluster, but it could just be the "calm before the storm." I'm a parent and a math teacher who has done considerably more than "five minutes of Google research." It seems to me that people generally trust their districts to choose quality math programs, and districts trust their state officials to write quality standards and recommend quality programs. Unfortunately for many parents and students, it is not until the child struggles on college math placement tests that they realize there is a problem and that their trust may have been misplaced.

In Missouri, our METS Coalition promotes the use of the 19 NSF programs reviewed in "On Evaluating Curricular Effectiveness: Judging the Quality of K-12 Mathematics Evaluations," Mathematical Sciences Education Board (2004). METS has actually made the use of these programs a requirement for eligibility of other grants. (Information available under "grant facts" on the METS Coalition website.) Not only did NSF develop these programs with poor evidence standards with our tax dollars, my state is going a step further and using grant eligibility, as well as their political influence to subsidize their marketing!

The testing phenomena with NCLB is also a double-edge sword. Missouri's Algebra I End of Course Exam is too closely aligned to "reform" math programs. It contains very little authentic algebra content as described in the National Mathematics Advisory Panel's March 2008 report. Results of that exam will undoubtedly be very misleading. Districts that use "reform" teaching materials will probably perform well, while districts teaching "authentic algebra" may not fair so well. This sends the wrong message to district officials and the community at large.

The focus on math programs, rather than on authentic content is crushing our students' ability to be prepared for the future. There are many Americans capable of creating math standards with focus, rigor, and coherence so that students are prepared for college and life in this global economy. It is unacceptable that state math standards and programs promoted contain content which places our students behind other industrialized countries upon high school graduation. It is time for us to stop subsidizing mediocre math programs and demand authentic math content for our children!

Thank you for the post!
Lisa Jones

I'd like to comment briefly on just two of your assertions:

You write, "part of the parents' concerns seems to be that the lessons in the textbooks look much different from those they're familiar with from their days in the classroom, years before." Though you seem to make light of this problem, we have found in our district that when it turned to Everyday Mathematics parents were not as able to help their children with homework as they had done before. This is not an inconsiderable disadvantage.

Then you write, "Some district officials said Singapore Math didn't offer an approach that could serve students at a broad range of ability levels, including English-language learners." Here there seems to be an attempt to assert that ELLs have a low ability level, a proposition I would take issue with. Moreover a curriculum like Singapore Math, has an emphasis that is more on the symbolism of math, rather than the fully scripted nature of Everyday Mathematics. That would seem to make it more language neutral than some others. As for serving student with a broad range of abilities, there's probably enough overseas experience to verify.

"Well-meaning parents should not be able to vote based on five minutes of Google research."

If You Google "Everyday Math Controversy" there is quite a bit of web content about parents displeased with the results of their children using Everday Math (EM) curriculum.

There are websites and blogs devoted to educating people about constructivist (fuzzy) programs like Everyday Math vs. traditional math programs like Singapore(see www.nychold.com), some totally focused on getting rid of Everyday Math in a particular school district, petitions against EM and other forms of fuzzy math, newspaper articles about battles over math curriculum in school districts around the country.

There is a popular You Tube video, Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth, that has over 700,000 hits which presents some of the more interesting aspects of Everyday Math that parents are concerned about, including an unusual method of multiplication:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr1qee-bTZI

All it takes is five minutes online and it's easy to see that Everyday Math is controversial. There is a lot of negative feedback about Everyday Math, certainly enough to warrant parent's concerns about introducing the program in their school district.

As a point of information, Singapore does not ability-group students until grade 5, & at least one quarter of students there (perhaps more) are being educated in a language they do not speak at home.

All of this can be found in the AIR report on Singapore Math.

The debate is no closer to resolution than ever. Constructivist methods are well-entrenched in schools across the nation. Teachers with little math background can "succeed" with spiraling curriculum that do not expect mastery. Teachers have little impetus or appetite for change.
However, last week, the main Conn. newspaper (the Hartford Courant) reported that 40% of incoming freshman at Conn's public colleges and universities need remedial math. 40%.
Connecticut is deeply invested in programs such as Everyday Math and Trailblazers, with state standards closely aligned with these programs. But you can be sure, after 12 years of education in fuzzy math, a 40% failure rate for college bound students will only fan the flames of the math wars. Parents are more concerned than ever that the conceptual understanding over computation fluency rhetoric is simply wrong.
Don't forget, Steven Leinwand, the architect of Connecticut's state standards once said that the teaching of standard algorithms and long division was "elitist" and "dangerous."

We've followed the advice of educator professionals such as Mr. Leinwand far too long. The experiment they have forced upon our children is having disastrous results. With 40% of incoming freshman failing math when they walk in the door, it's time to call a halt to the failures of constructivist math.

Parents can find information about why other parents -- many of whom are themselves mathematicians or are employed in math-related professions -- object to Everyday Math and other constructivist math curricula at kitchen table math, the sequel, which I cofounded with a mathematician who was struggling to remediate the damage done to her own child by Everyday Math.

In the summer of 2005 I interviewed my cousin about her experience with Everyday Math; she finally withdrew her daughter from public school and enrolled her in a private school that used Saxon Math. A transcript of that interview is available at kitchen table math.

My position in the math wars (and in the reading wars & the liberal arts wars) is simple:

Parents need a vote and a veto.

I am not a mathematician.

But when I see real mathematicians rejecting this curriculum, I want school districts to do likewise.

At the same time, I am willing to fund Everyday Math for those parents who freely choose Everyday Math for their children's education. I support the choices of others, and I ask that they support the choices I make.

"'Focal Points' reflects a growing consensus that A) the current math curriculum is overcrowded and confusing for teachers and students; and B) creating a more focused curriculum and encouraging students to master certain key topics lay the groundwork for their foray into more difficult math later."

Everyday Math does not meet either condition A) or B). But then again, "encouraging" mastery is just so wishy-washy it could mean anything. The Focal Points are just used to get others to go away so that schools can continue to decide on all of the details.


"Which raises another question, in all of these skirmishes: Where are parents getting their information about the various math curricula?"

You can't pick and choose your arguing points. You know quite well that there are many serious, well-founded objections to these math curricula. By not focusing on real problems, like ensuring mastery rather than "encouraging" mastery, you either don't understand what's going on or you're trying to change the subject.


The Focal Points is an educational turf manifesto. It's designed to make others go away. It won't work. Details matter. It's time to move beyond the simple argument that parents just want what they had when they were growing up. Let's talk about why parents have to care about this in the first place. Because schools aren't getting the job done.

I find it unbelievable that you have the audacity to think parents are not educated or capable enough to research and come to a conclusion about a math program. As if teachers do a better job of research of these programs offered and selects the appropriate program for instructing math. I have had the displeasure of using Everyday Math and it didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that it is the worst program our school district has ever adopted. I was lucky enough to transfer to another school were Saxon Math is the program of the year and it is at least a better program but still lacks tough problem solving problems.

Math programs are a huge problem but I and most good math teachers can supplement any program with a white board, pencil and paper to ensure our students are getting the basic math skills they need. That is not always the case. Just today a 4th grade teacher that has been in the school for years was explaining two digit multiplication to her students and I paused to listen. What I heard nearly made me hurl as she explained, “Now place the egg under the first number so you know were to start the real answer.” No explanation about partial product or that the “Egg” or zero is part of the “Real answer.” Disillusioned I walked back to my room wondering how this can happen in a great school by a well respected teacher.

For Everyday Math I will say if it smell, looks, and feels like crap then it probably is.

Here is a source of parent information:

K-12 MATH EDUCATION FORUM
April 24, 2008, 5:30pm - 7:30pm, Port Discovery
Dr. James Milgram
Dr. William Schmidt
Dr. Stephen Wilson

http://www.baltimorecp.org/leadingminds/

I think it would be worthwhile asking where administrators and teachers are getting their information about the various math curricula.

In my own district, "information" about math curricula comes from ed schools and publishing companies.

Mathematicians and those employed in math-related professions are never consulted, and when such individuals attempt to offer their expertise regardless, they are ignored.

I sometimes think I'm on both sides of the math wars myself. There are a couple of points you've raised here that I want to comment on:

First, I find it interesting that people are objecting to Singapore math on ELL grounds. I went to a conference (Math Ed, state level) where one of the main points one of the invited speakers made about Singapore was that the language is very direct and simple when compared with US texts. The reason for this is that all students in Singapore are essentially ELL students--the language in school is English, but the language at home is Mandarin or something else (there are, I think 2 or 3 common first languages). Now Singapore has a lot of problems that are hard for non-linguistic reasons, and I can see a lot of students struggling, but it's the math that's hard, not the language.

The other point I wanted to address is the question of parents opinions, because I want to turn it around: Where are the teachers and administrators getting their information? Some, perhaps, are getting it from the What Works clearinghouse. Having looked there before (not specifically for Everyday Math), that isn't a lot of information. And the things they approve are mostly approved in a very qualified way: because the studies weren't done very scientifically (not enough data, poorly formed statistically), and because almost all of the studies are paid for by the publishers or developers of the curricula. That's a problem across the board. The data is bad. Education data is bad. Unless we come up with a completely different way of funding it and doing it, it's probably going to stay bad.

So, where else do they get their information? Very often it comes from interested parties--publishers, developers, sometimes researchers whose work depends on and interacts with these publishers and developers. Even if you sit down with a book yourself, it is really hard to figure out without actually using it if it works. Sometimes, you don't find out until years afterward that it doesn't work, because the thing that is wrong is the topic everyone thought that someone else was teaching somewhere else in the curriculum, and it isn't there--CMP has, or at least used to have that problem (I haven't looked at the latest edition).

I don't think that anyone has a good enough source of information to be the expert. Hopefully, all those curriculum directors are doing their job and reading the research and poring over the texts themselves, and not just listening to what the textbook rep says. Actually, I'm sure a lot of them aren't doing all of those things--they already have too much to do without that (for some of them, Google would be a step up, because everything they know they got from a textbook rep). But even if they were doing everything right, it's very possible to miss important things--I've done it plenty of times in choosing textbooks. I personally think parents should have a say, and that schools should provide choices, but the thing that is really insidious is the assumption that the administrators and teachers have all the knowledge they need, because I'm quite sure they don't.

Every time there is a new approach taken in the US, someone makes money and another child doesn't achieve. I'm for innovation as long as it serves the purpose. So what is the purpose of math
1) to be able to surive in the 21st Century where market surveys and the economy rules?
2)to learn how to think via well-formed questions that are skeptical and discriminating
3) To master problems through taking a number of steps and to be able to check each step for accuracy and insight?
4) To demonstrate an ability to foresee what a test writer wants in a high cost, pressure-driven test?
5) To prepare every student to potentially study to for a prossion in design engineering, basic research science, or theoritical math or physics?
The real issue is why do children have to learn math (or any subject or discipline for that matter)? Once that question is well anwered then the "Math Wars" can stop. Until the US Education System realises that learning how to learn is the most valuable skill anyone garners from schooling and that School districts deliver on that goal, the whole educational enterprise is at the hands of markets, entrprenuers, politicians and poor thinking, poorly informed (though vocal) "Five-minute" gogglers.

For an in-depth explanation of Everyday Math, there is a podcast available on our web site at http://www.sycp.us/content/everyday-math.

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