Looking Back: Backlash to Changing Math Instruction Not Unique to Common Core

By Liana Loewus — August 09, 2016 2 min read
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When persons with advanced math degrees do not agree upon the answer in a 4th grade math book, something is wrong. ... I beg of you, please read the math books children are using. ... The extended use of set theory is almost obscene. Set theory is a post-graduate exercise, not suitable for children who can not even multiply yet.

Does the complaint, written by a parent/chemist to a local school board chairman, sound familiar? Perhaps it calls to mind the letter that went viral on Facebook a couple years ago, in which a father, frustrated by his son’s homework, wrote to the teacher, “I have a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. ... Even I cannot explain the common-core mathematics approach, nor get the answer correct.”

But the above critique is not about the Common Core State Standards for math (as you may have figured out from the bit on set theory, which isn’t explicitly mentioned in the standards). And it wasn’t written recently.

In fact, it’s pulled from a 1972 Washington Post article about New Math, the shift in mathematics instruction that began in the late 1950s. New Math emphasized conceptual understanding over rote memorization—not unlike the common core.

Matt Larson, the new president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, pointed me to the article in a recent conversation. He also highlights it in a book he recently co-wrote, Balancing the Equation: A Guide to School Mathematics for Educators & Parents.

Common Core as a ‘Scapegoat’

In the book, Larson and co-author Timothy Kanold show similarities between the backlash to New Math, which most schools eventually moved away from, and the common core.

“In general, when frustration sets in for students, parents, or teachers, there is a tendency to want to place blame and find a scapegoat,” they write. “The common core became a bogeyman for every concern anyone had about mathematics education. With respect to most of these concerns, the bogeyman existed prior to 2010, but now he had a new high-profile identity.”

Many district officials and educators say that any major curricular change—not just those associated with the common core—can cause concern among parents. “Any time a district moves to building more conceptual understanding into their mathematics program, and students are coming home with either homework that looks unfamiliar or ... with different computational methods than parents have seen before, there’s always going to be questions,” Diane Briars, who preceded Larson as NCTM president, told me for a 2014 story on how schools are teaching parents about the common core.

“It happened before common core with me,” a Toledo, Ohio, mother said for that story. As soon as the class received a new textbook, “I could never help my daughter with homework.”

For now, the social media chatter from parents concerned about common-core math seems to have died down a bit. But confusion may still be quite prevalent: A recent survey from the Fordham Institute indicates that 85 percent of teachers agreed at least somewhat with the statement that “reinforcement of math learning at home is declining because parents don’t understand the way math is being taught.”


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.