Everyday Math: Innumeracy By Design
In the 1960s we had New Math. In the 1980s and 1990s we had a reiteration called Reform Math, which is still with us. These are all inferior curricula and have the counterintuitive result of making children unable to do much math or science.
Reform Math consists of about a dozen separate textbooks. The most widely used of the lot is Everyday Mathematics (also called EM and Chicago Math). Two things you can safely say about Everyday Math: it’s rarely loved and often hated. Millions of parents have wasted billions of hours trying to explain to their kids why they have to learn math in such a stupid way.
Children forced to learn with any variety of Reform Math bounce from topic to topic without mastering any of it. Most end up discouraged, and rarely go on to calculus, physics, chemistry, and the sciences generally. It’s a kid-killer and a civilization-killer.
To give people watching from the sidelines a sense of what Everyday Math is like, I collected war stories and first-person accounts. The material is sad, revealing, and somewhat repetitive. You can skip along any way you like but please read the concluding remarks. (Quotes are lightly edited for smoother reading; links to originals are provided.)
PARENT: “My son was actually crying at the table because he couldn't figure out how to do his division. He worked on the problem for over a half an hour, and could not get the answer. My child is not a slouch. He is very good at school, very good. I taught him how to divide the way that we were all taught in school. He had every problem on the page done in less than five minutes....What this is going to boil down to in my eyes is possibly when my child hits college, it's going to be more money out of my pocket and I'm going to have to pay for remedial math courses for my kid to get into college or to maintain a college grade point average....Every parent that I talked to hates this 'Everyday Math' and wishes it was gone."
PARENT: “My 9 year old is an honor student in the 4th grade at his school. He is a good athlete and generally well-rounded in writing, grammar, music, art and science. He gets good grades in math only because his parents are teaching him old time arithmetic, so he can understand what the ‘strategies’ are for. The school systems are puking all over our kids.”
WIKIPEDIA: “Almost as soon as the first edition was released, it became part of a nationwide controversy over reform mathematics. In October 1999, US Department of Education issued a report labeling Everyday Mathematics one of five ‘promising’ new math programs. The perceived endorsement of Everyday Mathematics and a number of other textbooks by an agency of the US government caused such outrage among practicing mathematicians and scientists that a group of them drafted an open letter to then Secretary of Education Richard Riley urging him to withdraw the report. The letter appeared in the November 18, 1999 edition of the Post and was eventually signed by over two hundred prominent mathematicians and scientists including four Nobel Laureates (one of whom, Steven Chu, has since become Secretary of Energy), three Fields Medalists, a National Medal of Science winner from the University of Chicago, and the some chairs of math departments.”
WHAT WORKS CLEARINGHOUSE: WWC reviewed the evidence in support of the Everyday Mathematics program. Of the 61 pieces of evidence submitted by the publisher, 57 did not meet the WWC minimum standards for scientific evidence, four met evidence standards with reservations, and one of those four showed a statistically significant positive effect.
READINGTON SCHOOL PARENTS: “Today our district is said to be reviewing the program, along with many others, to determine what course our math curriculum should take in the coming years. Some critics believe that this review process is a sham and that the de-facto decision has already been made to forge ahead with an updated version of Everyday Mathematics, a program frequently despised by parents and other community members...Critics say that, whatever the goals of Everyday Math, in practice it is a curriculum which is a mile wide and an inch deep, it is confusing to students who seem to chase their tails finding different computational methods instead of finding the answers, it doesn’t provide enough practice for students to master fact recall, it fails totally in areas like fractions and pre-algebra, and it forces parents or the private tutors they hire to supplement with more traditional methods at home.”
PARENTS: "Everyday Mathematics--popularly known as ‘Chicago Math’ and published by Wright Group/McGraw-Hill...is one of the most pervasive of the original fuzzy, constructivist math programs. It was developed starting in 1985 by a group called the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP). It is legendary for its problems without solutions, incredibly frustrating ‘games,’ shallow interest in effective algorithms, heavy use of the demoralizing practice of spiraling, and oddball methods such as ‘lattice multiplication.’”
TEACHER: “We’d gone through six straight wrong answers, and now the kids were tired of feeling lost. It was only October, and already my fourth-grade public school class in the South Bronx was demoralized. Day after day of going over strange, seemingly disconnected math lessons had squelched my students’ interest in the subject....Then, quietly, 10-year-old David spoke up. ‘Mr. Clavel, no one understands this stuff.’ He looked up at me with a defeated expression....If school officials knew how far my lessons would deviate from the school district-mandated math program in the months ahead, they probably would have fired me on the spot.....But boy, did my kids need a fresh approach.... Since kindergarten, most of them had been taught math using this same dreadful curriculum, called Everyday Mathematics....Unfortunately, a student in a Fuzzy Math program—including Everyday Mathematics—is unlikely to master much of anything. The hours of logically linked lessons that old-style math classes spent on practicing operations so that they became second nature to students just are not there. As one local paper, complaining about Fuzzy Math, put it, ‘Rote learning and the memorization of traditional algorithms appear to have been completely thrown out the window.’
Teachers frustrated by this incoherent approach got little sympathy from school administrators. District officials told us that we should just keep going—even if not a single child in our rooms understood what we were talking about.”
PARENTS: “Where Everyday Math will do real damage is in the communities who don’t have the knowledge or the resources to overcome the shortcomings. And, sadly, who really gets shortchanged here? The kid who might be mathematically gifted but who has a language disability. All kids should have the opportunity to be good at something; these kids can’t even have that.”
PARENT: “If your school uses Everyday Math, you should be extremely watchful. Everyday Math is problematic because it is a language-intensive-based program that stresses the use of calculators; wants the kids to come up with their own ways to solve the problems; doesn't teach the traditional algorithms (the multiplication and division methods that they teach break down when using large numbers, but there is absolutely no reason to be able to compute large numbers nowadays, is there?); and does not advocate drill in any form. Now, this means that some kids lose out: Kids who might have a language problem but would be really good at mathematics, kids who need the ‘rules’ first and then they can come to the concepts (think phonics versus whole language), and kids who need drill in order to retain concepts.”
PARENT: “At first blush my instincts told me that it was not rigorous enough, nor content rich. However, I decided at the time to be deferential to the educators and accepted the program assuming that educators knew more about mathematics education than I. I rue the day that I accepted it without question and that I did not investigate further. My children's days were to be filled with counting on a scroll to 1,000,000 and playing games. Addition and subtraction facts were not emphasized properly. Fractions in the 5th grade were glossed over. These should have been major red flags to me as these skills are all very critical to success in algebra. It should have occurred to me that whoever wrote this program had a significant deficit in understanding or remembering advanced mathematics and in knowing what it takes for children to be successful in advanced mathematics.....Children who are unfortunate enough to receive this curriculum who do not have their education supplemented will be shut out of many careers that depend on mastering the sequential elements of the hierarchy that is math.
PARENT: “I live in an Everyday Math district in Pennsylvania, and while scores on our state test, the PSSA, are rising, our SAT scores are dropping.
....A child could be getting straight As in Everyday Math and still be counting on his fingers. I have heard Everyday Math referred to as ‘Every Night Math’ because every night parents are teaching their children the math they should be learning in school or driving them to tutoring centers to supplement their education.”
PARENT: “Dear Faculty and Staff: I am writing to express my concern about Chicago Math, which is currently being taught in the Troy elementary school system. This program has failed my two daughters, and is not the best choice for our students....I pursued advanced mathematics in high school, and then in college, obtaining a degree from Michigan State University, and another degree from the University of California Berkeley....I believe the awkward algorithms promoted by Chicago Math are inappropriate for most of our students. A small percentage of gifted children may grasp the deeper meaning, the detailed construction of the car's engine, but most will not. Many children are left behind, and cannot perform the simplest arithmetic operations that we take for granted. This is especially true for the kids who are already struggling.”
Reform Math basically drives most of its victims away from any interest in math, and prevents skill at math.
To be successful in math, children need to believe they are in control, that they understand what they’re doing. When children feel that they are winners, they’ll want to go on to the next step. If they don’t have that feeling of victory, they fall by the wayside. Reform Math virtually guarantees that children will not have that confidence.
If you had children who hated Everyday Math, some expert might try to tell you that a different school or better trained teachers could make it work. That’s the big lie. These stories make clear this bogus pedagogy is designed not to work.
The perversity in Reform Math is so great and so glaring. You cannot trust the integrity of the people who come up with such dreck. These professors are from the field of education, not math. They have ideological goals. They think that girls and minorities can’t even learn math, so they needed to create a debased form of math. Having created that debased form of math, they then think they are entitled to force it on everyone, even the students who supposedly can learn regular math.
Reform Math is basically a psycho but one that clearly identifies itself as such (a psycho in psycho’s clothing, we might say). One of the oddball features of New Math/Reform Math was that parents could not understand them and could not help their little third-graders with arithmetic homework. That tells the whole story.
It’s helpful to contrast Everyday Math with Saxon Math, the highly successful books written and published by John Saxon circa 1985. Saxon believed in teaching things slowly, lovingly, with lots of practice and lots of review. The whole point was to make the child feel successful, and be successful. Saxon believed in incremental learning with mastery all along the way. His ideas were the mirror opposite of what Reform Math preaches. Saxon Math took ordinary kids and made them into, if not whizzes, then at least highly accomplished problem solvers. Reform Math destroys all but the most gifted math students.
The American tragedy is that we have ideological extremists who insist on designing flawed methods.
Concerned about STEM? Get rid of Reform Math.
RELATED ARTICLE: "36: The Assault on Math"
About the Author
Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, and education reformer. He founded Improve-Education.org in 2005. This site has 65 unique articles. Many of them deconstruct the theories and methods often found in the public schools.
For example, there are articles on whole word, reform math, cooperative learning, learning styles, constructivism, prior knowledge, etc. There are also many articles on intellectual subjects such as sophistry, Latin, design, poetry, and grammar.
The site is also concerned with the optimal ways to teach subjects, as discussed for example in "26: How To Teach History, Etc. and the article above.