Return of the Math Wars

Few subjects make parents more incensed than the way math is taught to their children.

A group of parents in Prince William County, organized online as Teach Math Right, has been lobbying the School Board for more than a year to abandon its elementary math curriculum. Their complaint? They say the approach is heavy on fun but light on facts.

Now they are seeing some response to their criticisms. School board Chairman Milton C. Johns said the board plans to consider whether parents should be given an option to enroll their children in a more traditional math course and is thinking about whether the contested curriculum should be expanded as scheduled in next year’s budget.

The curriculum in question is called "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space" It’s also used in Frederick, Loudoun, Arlington, Charles and St. Mary's counties. Some schools in Fairfax use it too.

School officials say the textbook series helps students understand daily applications of math and why algorithms work by using games or manipulatives to deepen their understanding of math concepts. They say it builds on how kids learn naturally, by exploring.

But Greg Barlow, one parent in Prince William, said the program teaches less math, period. He became concerned, he said, when his son was still having trouble with basic addition and subtraction at the end of second grade. He would like for students to have the option of learning math the way most adults did, with more drill and memorization, so they can solve a double-digit subtraction problem automatically by following a few basic rules.

How did you learn math back in elementary school? Is it very different from the way your kids are learning math today?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  February 2, 2009; 9:42 AM ET  | Category:  Math for Parents
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I understand the father's emotions, but the simple fact is that memorizing math facts and understanding deeper concepts are two very different things. The reason why we thing learning math (or any other subject for that matter) is difficult is because we learned it the hardest way possible.

For example, most of us learned foreign languages by memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary, and then when we were in situations where we had to communicate in that language we couldn't say (or understand) a word. Students who learn languages now are taught with "communicative" methods that may appear to be short on formal grammar but result in the development of true communicative skills.

When elementary school teachers concentrate on the understanding of math concepts and building on "how kids learn naturally" they are indeed doing the right thing.

Posted by: contrarymom | February 2, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Isn't the more relevant qustion: How are the countries with the "best" results teaching math? Of course there are always the qualifiers about difficulty in comparing because of different populations, etc, but it seems clear that even at the top achievement levels, U.S. schools fall short (i.e, it is not just a question of more childhood poverty here than in, say Europe).

Posted by: gilboa | February 2, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Deep concepts are nice, but if children are going through school without developing the skills of quick, automatic arithmetic problem solving, they and all of us are in "deep" doo-doo.

Posted by: uououo | February 2, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

The one thing that stands out in my mind about math from elementary school is timed worksheets. 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning of class to do as many arithmetic problems as possible, one or two times a week. It probably tested memorization, especially in the single digit realm, but once you've got that x*y means x groups of y items, that's when you're *supposed* to memorize things (at least the common ones). The competition was an important part of it, too (don't remember if I knew other students' scores, but I knew my own record). No kids of my own, so I don't know what it's like currently.

I'm all for deeper understanding of concepts. A student learning about addition and subtraction should be able to discover on his or her own the commutative property, and maybe even have an idea of why it doesn't work for subtraction.

But if Greg Barlow's son is having trouble with basic addition and subtraction (here, I read "trouble" as he doesn't get it, not that it takes him longer because he hasn't memorized 4+7=11), then it sounds like he's learning at a slower pace, and drill and memorization might gloss over the fundamental problem that the son doesn't understand addition. Maybe the more appropriate solution (although probably not the popular one) is to hold him back a year so he has another chance to learn it.

Posted by: tomsing | February 2, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

I had the pleasure of actually participating in an investigative algebra lesson. It was such a logical, rational approach that by the time we got to the procedural aspect of mathematics(which is part of the instructional model) it made complete sense and was, quite frankly, easy. At that point, the algebraic representation was merely a way of labeling what we had been doing all along. To see one of these classrooms (with a teacher who understands the instructional model) in action is truly an amazing sight.

The difference isn't game playing vs. practicing skills. It is teaching the concept first then applying the skills that support the concept. math.

Posted by: yetimo | February 2, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

My father taught me math by quizing me weekly when we could on outings together, dinner/movies/music lessons/camping/etc. He encouraged me to memorize multiplication tables and it was like atiny victory whenever I got a question correct. He did this for me ll the way to college.

I still remember my junior year calculus class, sleeping through the lecture, being woken up by my teacher to solve a question thinking she had finally caught me, only to give a correct answer just by glancing at what was written on the chalk board and fall right back asleep.

I'm a huge advocate of parents stepping in to teach their children as a supplement to schooling.

Posted by: konflikt | February 2, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

If Investigations is so wonderful, why do school systems feel the need to sneak it into their curriculum? Fauquier County in VA is also trying to sneak it in through pilot projects that parents aren't notified about and not given a chance to opt out of.

I am sure that Investigations works well for some children and may help those who struggle to pass the SOL tests. What about those children that are not struggling? How does this help them?

The Virginia DOE provides recommendations on many of the various text books. Investigations is on the list of recommended texts but is one of only 3 that carries a note indicating deficiencies. I would encourage everyone to compare the different texts and look at how many cover ALL of the SOLs at grade level. Investigations doesn't. Period.

Posted by: tmarshallva | February 2, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

And the dumbing down of the nation's schools continues. If you think the standard is just "memorization" then you're ridiculously naive. Memorization is simply the RESULT of students who logically walk through the concepts day in and day out. Silly fools, no one is teaching your kid to "memorize" addition/subtraction. And I recall the standard method of number bars and pop quizzes being sufficiently fun without having to muck it all up with you champions of our collective ignorance trying to reinvent the wheel.

Posted by: garygfamily | February 2, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

I think the point that gets lost in the "math wars" is that instruction shouldn't be one or the other. Students definitely need to practice skills but our math classes tend to do so at the expense of not teaching the reason for learning the skills. If you ask an 'A' student why she solves for x, or why she needs to know what 12x12 is, she won't be able to tell you. In fact, can we as adults answer these questions?

Posted by: yetimo | February 2, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

I was trained to teach 20 years ago and at that time the approach to teach reading was to abandon the "meaningless" phonics lessons and focus on the joy of reading with higher level comprehension. Now that I have a first grade son I finally see the necessity of both phonics and higher level comprehension taught daily. Math should be taught with both simple drills to sharpen the students' speed and accuracy but also with the higher level of understanding why. And yes, parents, it is our job to help our children understand how math is a part of our everyday lives. Don't sit back and expect the teachers to do everything.

Posted by: 3boys4me | February 3, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

When my kids were in school I desperately wanted the school to assume full responsibility for teaching them math because I knew that I couldn't do it: I'm a PhD professor of English, and having barely used what I was taught forty-something years ago, I don't remember it.
The question that never seems to get addressed is why all students need such things as trig or calculus. The closest anyone gets to an answer is "to be competitive in a global economy." But outside of the few who are passionate about math and the hard sciences and would take math courses as electives, most people don't seem to use much more than algebra and some elementary statistics.

Posted by: jlhare1 | February 3, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

More school districts need parents like Greg Barlow who are willing to speak up about education that isn't working.

To say that Investigations is a "math" program is to redefine what elementary math is.

To succeed in this world, American children need to know how to add, subtract, multiply, divide and work with fractions. They shouldn't have to go to tutors or outside centers like Kumon for that to happen. Neither should parents have to home school these basic skills when they aren't happening in school.

It's time for government, schools, local, state and federal, to take a real, hard look at what's going on in the classroom and make a decision use our tax dollars appropriately to empower our students.

I am proud to have been involved in a group of parents who helped to rid our school district of Investigations Math. In a district of about 5000 kids, over 900 parents signed an online petition protesting the program. Our local teachers union supported the change back to real math.

Performance outcomes on NY state math tests placed our middle/upper middle class district in the bottom of the barrel for Long Island. After years of struggling with this so-called math, parents found their kids, who we coined "TERC babies", to be ill-prepared for middle-school math.

Visit for more details.

For those not intimately familiar with Investigations and other constructivist math programs, it's not just a matter of parents reteaching a concept at home. In many classrooms, the students are not allowed to use basic, recognizable methods for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing.

College math professors agree that programs like Investigations do not help prepare kids for the rigor and knowledge needed at their level. Students who are taught math with programs like Investigations at the elementary level are not on track for the opportunity of learning calculus in high school.

See for details.

It should be no surprise that parent groups against Investigations math are springing up all over our nation. End-users are saying math programs like Investigations aren't working. It's time for someone to listen.

Posted by: fidiwitz | February 4, 2009 7:10 AM | Report abuse

To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant statistics.
--W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993)

The USA is the worst English speaking nation tested on PISA math for 15 year olds. TERC/Investigations is used in 1/3 of our nations schools and Everyday math in 1/3. These programs have National Science Foundation push behind them, but lack results.

By grade 5 in TERC/Investigations children are at least two years behind their peers in other math competitive countries. Everyday math does not teach long division rather it recommends to pick up a calculator.

The results of reform math are obvious to those not riding the NSF or publishers gravy train. USA's PISA scores are poor ... USA's Trends in International Math and Science Study scores unimpressive. Math remediation enrollment are rising at colleges.

Here is piece from University of Washington professors in Seattle, who teach freshman. These professors are not in the Math education business (as in bought out by NSF grant dollars financing the great Math Fiasco). These are Professors who have seen a decade long decline in entering student math skills at Washington's premiere public university.
"it especially interesting that none of the signers were from the UW School of Education, which is presumably training a large part of the solution to the problem--a new generation of teachers."

UW school of education rejects data instead preferring to continue and expand the problem.

More Seattle News here:

Education decisions are apparently made by "Club Ed" gurus, who ignore results. Do not count on improvement coming from what these folks describe as best practices. They have no positive results to support their supposed best practices. In fact in many cases their best practices produce negative outcomes.

Posted by: WestSeattleDan | February 4, 2009 7:57 AM | Report abuse

They say it builds on how kids learn naturally, by exploring.

It would be wonderful if we could leave "the land of they say" and enter the world of decision making based on results.

Posted by: WestSeattleDan | February 4, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

The fact is that students need BOTH... if students can't add, subtract, multiply and divide integers and fractions before they get to Algebra 1, they will have NO CHANCE of actually understanding anything... but they also have NO CHANCE if they dont understand WHY you can't add fractions with unlike denominators, or why multiplying two negatives gives you a positive.

Posted by: someguy100 | February 4, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I wouldn't worry so much about these methods if it weren't for the danger of losing precious time. If you don't learn the multiplication tables and you can't add and subract quickly, can you quickly catch up when you are in, say, 6th grade? More importantly, is your teacher in 7th grade going to be able to lead you through that 'catch up' process and still stay on schedule teaching you effectively so you will be ready for 8th grade?
I think the inadequacies the U.S. shows in math achievement are purely related to the decisions made by the people who administrate in our public schools. Teachers shouldn't be allowed to waste a year 'exploring' and 'investigating' - unless the results are demonstrably superior when standardized tests are administered that year. It's a horrible thing to do to a child to lead them on a journey like that - and then expect him or her to perform. Oh, yeah, I forgot... teachers don't like standardized tests!
I still hear stories about how a teacher 'threw away' a year of math in my local public school; she may have been using a method she sincerely believed would lead the kids to love math and feel so stimulated to learn that they would practically learn the nuts and bolts on their own. But she was mistaken; more important, her boss, the principal, was mistaken. That teacher has legendary status for leading the kids through a year in which they learned practically nothing.
At my advanced age, I'm learning all the rules of divisibility - memorizing them - and memorizing the prime numbers under 100. Why? Because taking the math courses that I take, it's damned useful to know those things and it's gotta be done!
Today, I sat through a one-hour class in which we covered some history of enumeration. I realized I have forgotten the meaning of the roman numerals. We looked at number lines. We crammed a lot into one hour and we're only covering 5 chapters of a book of elementary math in one semester. This month, I got an education journal in the mail, devoted to issues of teaching math, in which some scholarly folk advocated teaching math with manipulatives in college! Honestly, I thought to myself reading the article that these people were out of their minds! Or maybe just drinking the 'investigations and explorations' kool-aid that is being sipped today by teachers of math.

Posted by: KathyWi | February 4, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Ha, I'm trying to comprehend how anyone can possibly even a little bit use a manipulative to demonstrate or explore, say... gradients or Taylor Series.

Posted by: someguy100 | February 4, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

During our math wars, a parent made the following statement about why they wanted our schools to get rid of Investigations math to a local TV news reporter: "They talk about math but they don't actually do any math."

It really "sums" up the problem.

If students can't actually combine fractions with unlike denominators they won't get too far in Algebra.

It's unfortunate that a program like Investigations that places basic math fluency on the back burner to an alleged "understanding" has grown and been accepted by so many schools and districts.

Parents of Terc babies won't let their kids fail. They work hard to homeschool addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and fractions to support the lack of math that is going on at school.

Schools that promote Investigations and other constructivist math curriculums never give credit to this behind-the-scenes phenomena - rather they truly believe programs like Investigations work -and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

Posted by: fidiwitz | February 4, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

The Math Science Partnerships driving math reform have yet to accept responsibility for their role in a massive deception to defraud public education.

Far below terrible, the DOE's tainted list of exemplary and promising math textbooks are filled with errors and poor writing.

Students are taught non-standard algorithms and problem-solving methods, yet are expected to use correct algorithms and methods. Knowledge of fractions is absolutely critical for success in algebra. The majority of US students do not take a geometry class that meets the college level standard.

Curriculum developers should not be allowed to evaluate their own textbooks. In the majority of research, authors did not follow WWC standards. Yet this is a practice that has been going on for decades.

Curriculum should be compared to world-class standards, not NCTM standards nor Achieve's Standards, since both of these standards set a minimum standard for students, not a standard for college-entrance.

The only persons who profit by 'churning' curriculum are the vendors and universities funded by the NSF-EHR.

The US education system is a two-tier track for failures and successes. Until the DOE can adopt a national k-12 curriculum with standards that are competitive with Singapore's, students will continue being socially promoted.

Failure in a US academic track means promotion into a lower track or alternative education where HS graduation rates hit single digits. 'Drop out', 'super senior', and 'rainbow graduation' describe what half our young adults accomplish after four years.

While appropriate in certain classrooms, discovery and inquiry methods of learning, claimed by 'certain experts' have not been proven to be effective in urban classrooms, especially with minorities and English language learners.

This is not a war, parents are trying to salvage a catastrophe. 'Success for all' is a lie and the reform movement is attempting to impose institutional change where none was needed. Change is costing Americans alot. Stop the disaster.

Posted by: ajax1992 | February 4, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

I learned math using very traditional methods, and got excellent grades and standardized test scores. Yet while I could quickly calculate the correct answer, I never really understood *WHY* the algorithm worked.

It wasn't until I started homeschooling my DD using the "Right Start" program that the light bulb went off for me. Right Start is based on the Asian way of teaching math like the Singapore program is, but with scripted lessons to make it easier to teach.

We need programs that teach both the traditional algorithms AND the underlying concepts.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 4, 2009 7:09 PM | Report abuse

The pro-MI crowd always say traditional is rote memorization. No, traditional is direct instruction and practice to master it.
Learning different approaches and why you are doing it is good;
group learning in large classes is BAD. A complete waste of valuable teaching time that leaves the advanced kids bored and the slow ones either unsupported or using all the teachers time.

The publishers have an attack plan of how to sneak these programs in. If they were worthwhile, they wouldn't have to.
How to counter parent opposition; start out with they don't get the new math then get some onto committees where they can't do any harm and label the rest as a small group of malcontents being fed from New York.
It's really scary the tactics that they use to sneak this stuff in just to make $$$

Posted by: edbrm1 | February 5, 2009 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Dear NCTM:

The success of the DOE's math textbooks is an example of a socially-constructed truth. It is no more based on fact than belief systems surrounding sasquatches.

One well-connected professor got paid over a million dollars to not write a textbook while his esteemed Dutch colleague spent most of his working time communicating with aliens.

The NSF is currently infected with an acute disorder known as counterphobic moralism. We will see what happens to funding for reform next year.

The roots for the progressive math reform movement are orthodox and racist.

Lets examine the psychologists employed at SRI - most of them are dead now, but a few are now employed in Indiana at the Majarishi U.

At the prebriefing of the textbook committee, officials were concerned about public backlash. They needed a strategy to bolster some absurd conclusions reached by a few Ohio State professors (now in Kalamazoo) who were doing some 'education research?' in Austin. One was the son of a publisher.

One myth they fostered was that urban children learned math better using discovery methods of learning (see also the Moore Method).

US mathematics education is a fraud and a fiction.

Signed MAD

Posted by: ajax1992 | February 13, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

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