Re-Examinining a Math Skirmish

By Sean Cavanagh — March 13, 2009 3 min read
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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?

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