Lost in Translation

By Samantha Stainburn — March 01, 2004 10 min read
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A new math curriculum has boosted test scores in several states. So why haven’t some New York City parents signed on?

Thomas Dooley, a fast-talking, 47-year-old retired firefighter in Queens, New York, believes public education has helped make America great. “If you were smart, you could move ahead,” he explains. “If you worked hard, you could move ahead. You were given an opportunity.”

New York City’s public schools, he says, did just that for his two college-age sons. After attending their local elementary school, one earned a spot at the city’s prestigious math magnet, Stuyvesant High, and is now studying engineering at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, one of the country’s best engineering schools. Last year, Dooley’s young daughter thrived in a gifted math program at the same elementary school her brothers attended, multiplying mixed fractions and doing basic algebra in 3rd grade.

This year, however, the school overhauled its math curriculum. The new program, Everyday Mathematics, is used for kids at all levels and employs few of the traditional methods Dooley’s daughter is used to. Instead of teaching standard ways to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and long division and then drilling students with worksheets, teachers present several options for solving problems and encourage kids to use those that make sense to them. Rather than spend weeks or a single class on one subject, lessons bounce around, covering several areas in an hour. Computation is practiced by playing games, and students must continually explain why they’re solving problems in the ways they’ve chosen.

It’s all part of broader changes in the New York City school system, the nation’s largest, that have overturned the curricular apple cart. In January 2003, Chancellor Joel Klein announced that he planned to replace the more than 75 math programs in use at city schools with a single mandated curriculum; similar sweeping changes have been made to reading programs. Klein argued that ensuring that all students receive the same City Hall-approved training would improve a system in which 70 percent of children entering 9th grade read or do math below grade level.

So during this school year and the next, the city’s 600 elementary schools are implementing Everyday Mathematics. (Schools designated as “high performing” are not required to switch this year, though many have; the rest will have their exemptions reviewed periodically.) Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam explains why school officials picked a program considered more progressive than those typically adopted by urban areas: “Just mastery of basic skills would not prepare our kids to do problem-solving, logical reasoning. Everyday Mathematics is a curriculum that combines both.”

Yet for many parents, the program, which refutes the back-to-basics approach that became popular in the 1970s, has been a hard sell. Despite his daughter’s aptitude for math, Dooley says that she’s confused. “They’re teaching all these different methods,” he explains, the anger rising in his voice. “Now when she does division or multiplication, she makes mistakes. She forgets to carry numbers over. She goes from left to right instead of from right to left. She’s forgetting her basic stuff.”

At the same time, computations are not difficult enough, he argues. “It’s back to 1st and 2nd grade math. I mean, ‘3 times 1'? ‘Two times 0'? What is that? She’s in the 4th grade.”

P.S. 230, a 1,200-student elementary school in Brooklyn’s multicultural Kensington neighborhood, adopted Everyday Mathematics six years ago, long before it was required. Former principal Howard Wholl, an administrator with a math background, believed then, as the city’s current crop of school administrators does now, that the program is more rigorous than typical workbook-driven fare.

It wasn’t easy to get used to, admits Sally Dyson, who’s been teaching for 35 years and gave up her classroom this year to become P.S. 230’s math coach, a new position the education department has added to schools implementing Everyday Mathematics. “When you first see it, it looks as if the lesson is teaching four things, which does fly against most everything we ever learn about how to teach math.” Yet, Dyson adds, she likes that “it’s something you have to talk about. It’s not the classic, ‘Do just the odd-numbered problems today.’”

Principal Bruce Berkowitz agrees. Because lesson preparation requires more critical thinking on the teacher’s end, he says, “we find that teachers are spending more time on math. Math is something that a lot of elementary teachers are afraid of. With this program, it’s more fun for them.”

And, indeed, on a frigid January day, the school’s classrooms crackled with energy during math hour. In Rita Donlon’s 2nd grade class, the kids sat on a carpet in front of a whiteboard, and even the boy who had one arm inside his sweatshirt and the other out of it was following her every move. “Is 33 closer to 30 or to 40?” she asked, pointing at a girl. “Nour?”

“Thirty,” the girl whispered, clearly guessing.

“Thirty? Do you understand why?” Nour was silent. “Let’s draw a number line,” Donlon said, sketching on the board. “Come up and circle 33 for me. Is it closer to 30 or 40?”


“OK,” Donlon said, and directed 11 kids to stand up and form a line symbolizing the numbers 30 through 40. She took Nour by the hand, and they walked down the line, stopping at Jimmy (30), Jasmine (33), and Sofia (40). “Is 33 closer to 30 or 40?”

“Thirty,” Nour answered, with more confidence.


“It was only three steps, and Sofia was seven steps,” she said.

“Good girl!” Donlon said. But there was no dwelling on the accomplishment as she directed the class to plop back down on the carpet and immediately moved on to addition. “How would you solve this problem?” she asked, writing “47 + 38" on the whiteboard. All but a few hands shot up in the air.

City officials like to show off P.S. 230 as proof that students who use Everyday Mathematics tend to learn more and like the subject better.

City officials like to show off P.S. 230 as proof that students who use Everyday Mathematics tend to learn more and like the subject better. The percentage of students scoring passing marks on standardized math tests rose from 60.9 percent in 1999, before the program was introduced schoolwide, to 74.9 percent in 2003. But the school is somewhat of an anomaly, enjoying extremely low staff turnover and a high level of community trust. P.S. 230 also had the luxury of introducing the curriculum gradually, in a way that garnered schoolwide support. Only those teachers who wanted to try it piloted the program, after paid summer training.

Many New York City schools, however, suffer from high staff turnover and tenuous relationships with parents. Plus, schools adopting the program this past fall were forced to implement it all at once, most with only a three-day, paid crash course for teachers on the new curriculum. Additional unpaid instruction during the summer was voluntary, and teachers who were losing math programs they liked attended with mixed feelings. Officials maintain that ongoing professional development and math coaches will help smooth the transition, but many schools’ coaches are new to Everyday Mathematics themselves.

The difficulty of getting educators in a troubled urban school system to rally around a single progressive math program has already been illustrated in San Antonio. Lam introduced Everyday Mathematics there in the mid-1990s, when she served as the city’s superintendent. After she had a dispute with the school board and left the district, however, teachers voted to jettison the program. Math scores had risen annually for four years, but inadequate training and lack of community buy-in prevailed.

Similar concerns are already bubbling in New York. Dooley says that his daughter’s school—which he declines to identify, for the sake of her privacy—held some meetings to introduce parents to the new program. But, he says, they were simply pep rallies. What’s more, they were held during the day, when many working parents couldn’t attend.

As hasty as the adoption of the new math and reading curricula appears, Lam insists that New York City school officials did take time to consult the public. Some 55,000 people, including parents, teachers, community groups, and mathematicians, participated in the district’s “strategic planning process,” she says.

But Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, suggests that a broader public conversation about math education still needs to happen, nationally as well as in New York City, if parents are to start trusting math educators. He believes that “math wars” get ugly because people think math education doesn’t need to change. “There will always be changes, and there should be,” he says. “If you’ve got a curriculum that’s static, it’s never going to meet the challenges of today’s world.”

Everyday Mathematics is itself a response to global changes, prominently signaled in 1983 in the U.S. government’s sky-is-falling report, A Nation at Risk, which warned that American kids were dropping perilously behind other nationalities in math ability. Setting out to design a new curriculum, University of Chicago researchers translated textbooks from high-achieving countries and discovered that, in places like the Soviet Union and Japan, programs put more emphasis on connecting math knowledge to real-life situations.

Andy Isaacs, co-director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education, believes that many criticisms stem from the fact that Americans don’t recognize how traditional math education has failed them. “People will say, ‘I could never do math,’” he notes. “How many people would say, ‘Oh, I could never read’? It’s not socially acceptable to be bad at reading, but it is socially acceptable to be bad at math.”

Everyday Mathematics is now used by about 2.5 million students in 28,000 schools nationwide, and in many places, it appears to be working.

Everyday Mathematics is now used by about 2.5 million students in 28,000 schools nationwide, and in many places, it appears to be working. A 2003 study of 100,000 children in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington found that average scores of Everyday Mathematics students on each state’s standardized test were significantly higher than for students of similar reading level, socioeconomic background, and race who were not using the curriculum. Numerous studies over the past decade have revealed similarly positive findings, and no study has determined that the program lowers test scores.

Yet many New York parents are having a difficult time reconciling such information with their own children’s experiences. Edmond David, whose son is a 2nd grader in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has been supplementing the school’s math classes with problems in traditional textbooks since kindergarten. “He’s five grade levels ahead,” David says. “It’s only 20 minutes a day. Why can’t the schools do the same thing?”

Others take a more cynical view of curriculum reform in general. “I think it’s a money-generating effort,” says Elizabeth Carson, a Manhattan parent and cofounder of NYC HOLD, an Internet-based group created in 2000 to oppose the use of progressive math programs in New York schools. “Programs are going to fail. They will be replaced. And then there’s more money for the next round of professional development and research. How many years before you figure out how to teach a kid long division?”

Lam acknowledges that taking on any new program is a challenge. But she says the district “believes that our teachers can do this really hard work with the appropriate support system, and... really believes that students, whether they are poor, whether they are minority, are also able to do this kind of high-powered work.”

Without community support, however, New York administrators may not get a chance to prove skeptics wrong. City leaders “think parents will just take whatever you give them,” Dooley says. “Well, let me tell you something: Sometimes they do in the beginning, but they’re catching on. There’ll be enough pressure brought. And eventually [the curriculum] will be gone, along with the mayor.”


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