The Magazine

Down for the Count?

The misbegotten curriculum known as Reform Math is a failure that may finally be on the way out.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By MELANA ZYLA VICKERS
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It's been a bad autumn for public school leaders in the state of Washington, a battleground in the nation's reemergent math wars. First, a whopping 52 percent of seventh graders and 41 percent of fourth graders failed the statewide math test. That dismal news further energized a new parents' group already lobbying to ditch the state's Reform Math curriculum, which favors estimation and kid-invented solutions to problems and downplays basics like long division and multiplication tables. Worst of all from the point of view of the public education establishment, the original champion of Reform Math--the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics--did an about-face in September and called for a nationwide return to basics.

By the beginning of October, Washington's besieged school administrators were circling the wagons: The state superintendent of public instruction announced she stood by the existing standards. One of their principal architects, math-education expert Virginia Warfield, compared the call for change to book burning. Criticism of the way math is taught in the state is a "smear and sneer campaign," Warfield added in an email newsletter on October 8. And she warned Washingtonians that Stanford mathematician James Milgram, one of the leaders of the return-to-basics movement, is "Rush Limbaugh with a Ph.D."

The fight will move to the legislature in January, when dueling math bills are due to be introduced. But whatever the outcome of that local controversy, its existence is indicative of a renewed struggle over math teaching coast to coast.

There's little dispute about the underlying predicament: U.S. public schools--rich ones, poor ones--have been failing math for decades. It was way back in 1965 that a musical spoof blasted the then-popular New Math, forebear of today's Reform Math, as "so very simple that only a child can do it." Eleven years ago, American eighth graders were revealed to be near the bottom of the international mathematics heap, just above their peers in Iran and Cyprus. And since at least 1990, the proportion of middle-class American high school sophomores proficient at "low level mathematical concepts, such as simplifying an algebraic expression," has languished around 45 percent.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has been leading this downhill march. After the federal government sounded the alarm with the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, which warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the schools, the NCTM developed a plan to put things right. In 1989 it published Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, a 258-page document that would define the prevailing wisdom for a generation.

Drills and memorization, it said, were the problem with American math teaching. Where once the student was required to master skills as prescribed by the teacher, under the new regime the student "discovers or creates math knowledge." Some math problems "should be open-ended with no right answer," and for "complex calculations" such as "column addition, long division," a "calculator should be used." Standards advocated communicating math in words and pictures while deemphasizing basic algorithms. This would make math more accessible, the argument ran, not just improving students' math performance, but ultimately "creating a just society in which women and various ethnic groups enjoy equal opportunities and equitable treatment."

Standards was quickly criticized by traditionalists such as Caleb Nelson in the American Spectator. But state departments of education and school districts already gripped by the "constructivist" fad ("A conceptual approach enables children to acquire clear and stable concepts by constructing meanings in the context of physical situations and allows mathematical abstractions to emerge from empirical experience."--Standards, p. 17) lapped it up. New texts, supported by over $50 million from the National Science Foundation, swept the country: Investigations in Number, Data and Space by the math program developer TERC and distributed by Pearson Scott Foresman; MathScape, by the Education Development Center and published by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill; and Everyday Mathematics, by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project and published by Wright Group/McGraw-Hill. By 2005 half the states were no longer requiring children to master the multiplication tables.