The United States has produced plenty of inspiring, fresh approaches to teaching math. The problem is that it has dropped the ball on implementing them.
That’s a key message of a much-shared July 2014 New York Times Magazine article by journalist Elizabeth Green. The piece, which was adapted from Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher, tells the story of a Japanese teacher who found success using radical teaching methods inspired by American “reformers” in the 1980s. But when he later moved to the United States, he was shocked to find math teachers here weren’t using the methods themselves.
It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. ... The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.
This scenario, Green writes, is playing out again with the Common Core State Standards for mathematics. While the standards are well-intended, she reports, the teacher training so far has been “weak and infrequent,” and principals are unprepared to provide support. And despite labels claiming common-core alignment, many textbooks haven’t undergone substantial changes.
Working from the (arguable) premise that Americans suffer from “innumeracy,” Green lays out what that “better way to teach math” looks like—basically, in her view, a combination of what the Japanese teacher learned from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and other reformers in the 1980s and what the common standards are trying to do now. In sum, teachers should move from encouraging “answer-getting”—memorizing procedures and algorithms—to focusing on “sense-making,” or letting students struggle through problems and make mistakes, so that they’ll come to understand the “whys” of math on their own.
But the first step is better professional development. “Left to their own devices, teachers are once again trying to incorporate new ideas into old scripts, often botching them in the process,” Green writes. “No wonder parents and some mathematicians denigrate the reforms as ‘fuzzy math.’ In the warped way untrained teachers interpret them, they are fuzzy.”
Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Where’s the Training?