Monday, December 7, 2009

Everyday Math Revisited: Parents Stand Up

By Pam Kenney

About three weeks ago I posted a commentary on this blog critical of the math curriculum Everyday Math. I was prompted to write it because I was receiving an increasing number of calls for help from parents whose elementary-age children were struggling in math classrooms using Everyday Math, and parental attempts to assist them at home were frequently not successful. The post generated more than 20 comments from both parents and educators. From the strong feelings expressed in those comments and from subsequent independent reading and research, I have become aware of a grassroots movement among parents anxious to become an integral part of the debate about how math is taught in our schools. For the first time in many years, parents are so frustrated by and angry about the trend by our nation’s school systems to adopt “reform” math curricula, they have banded together to stand up and fight for the kind of elementary math instruction for their children that will provide the concept grasp and computation skills necessary for success in math at high school and college levels.

One group, the United States Coalition for World Class Math, is made up of “an ever-growing group of state coalitions comprised of mathematically literate parents, many of whom are scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and educators who want nothing but excellence in Mathematics Education for the students of our country, the United States of America.” The focus of its mission is to urge each state’s department of education to develop core curriculum content standards in math, using as guides the curriculum standards from countries with the highest scores on international math tests as well as those from the U.S. states with the highest math rankings. Calling for standards that will prepare children for success in college and beyond, it recognizes the importance of input from research mathematicians and university math professors as well as from K-12 educators and professors of math education.

There is now an active state chapter of the national group, the Maine Coalition for World Class Math. Maine parents who are concerned about their children’s progress in math and the suitability of the math textbooks chosen by their school districts will find not only a sympathetic ear at this site, but a wealth of information, too. One particularly interesting and thought-provoking link provides visitors with the coalition’s “Design Principles for K-12 Mathematics Standards” that “address the major deficiencies and defects that currently plague far too many of our state mathematics standards.” One pertinent complaint of the Maine Coalition for World Class Math is that today’s math reform movement has led to the widespread adoption of curricula like Everyday Math. Many critics of Everyday Math argue that it attempts to teach children the conceptual “hows” and “whys” of math in such depth and in so many different ways that it fails to do a good job teaching the computation skills necessary to ensure the mastery of basic arithmetic. Its spiral approach (a method that moves from concept to concept and back again without clear mastery goals built in), a scope that is too broad and a sequence that is not logical, an over-reliance on calculators, too many confusing ways to solve simple problems, and little requirement for practice are common criticisms. Parents are concerned, too, that many of the Everyday Math methods have not been explained well to them, and they feel removed from the vital school-parent partnership.

The Coalition for World Class Math has had its share of criticism. Many educators feel it, and other groups like it, are advocating a return to the teaching methods of the 50s and 60s that emphasized rote drill at the expense of conceptual understanding. I don’t believe that perception is accurate, however. What thoughtful parents are desperate for today is a balanced approach to teaching math. They understand well that their children need to internalize the whys behind long division, for example. But they want their youngsters to know instantaneously that 6*8=48, too, and that takes practice. I believe their plea to schools is this: If it helps kids understand the process of long division better, teach them initially using a partial quotients method. But, also, teach them the long division algorithm that they will be required to use throughout their school careers. Don’t do away with drill; require enough basic facts practice to guarantee mastery. Parents know it takes diligence for children to become excellent math students, and they want their kids to work hard.

Please give parents more credit. They, just like teachers, want the best possible math instruction for their children. They are not uninformed or hopelessly out of date. In fact, the parents I work with would love to help schools improve their math instruction. The current reform vs. back-to-basics math debate shouldn’t be seen as an “us vs. them” movement. Parents have a lot to offer, they know their children better than anyone else, and their views deserve to be heard and thoughtfully addressed.


  1. While constructivist math programs like Everyday Math may be founded on good intentions, the execution of those intentions is a train wreck. This spiraling curriculum results in students who have been exposed to a lot but who lack depth, familiarity and efficiency in their math skills.

    For years parents all over the country have been complaining to professional educators about these sorts of nationally marketed programs, but only recently has progress been made in pockets here and there. It shows the strength of ties between publishing companies and public schools, the latter which often prefers expediency and the safety of jumping on the bandwagon over analysis of actual students in actual classrooms. Parents need to recognize the truth as exhibited by their own children and insist on results over intentions.

  2. Topic: Even educators are concerned about EDM

    It's not just parents who are challenging EDM and the gimmick textbooks with their new "math" jargon, this was an Op-Ed published in the Seattle Times earlier this year by a University of Washington professor:

    In Washington state, math scores have gone down in the districts that adopted EDM and other new math textbooks. It's no wonder parents and their children are so frustrated.

    There is one universal truth in this debate: there is no substitute for a good math teacher; be it in the classroom or in the home.

    As a parent, if I'm going to be responsible for tutoring math to my kids at home then I want a choice too. For me, it's "classic math" as some would call it. You know, the classic math education our engineers, designers, researchers and scientists applied that put a human on the moon, led to the discovery of DNA and transformed the simple transistor into the integrated nano-circuits that power our digital communications and computers today. That's the kind of math education that I'm talking about.

    NOTE: I've timed myself using both the lattice method and the partial quotient method for solving long division of large numbers. I'm faster the old fashion way which results in the same answer if I used the EDM way. How can kids possibly feel comfortable taking a timed test if they're forced to write out these tedious algorithms? Don't we want to develop computational skills if even computing our purchases at the grocery store?

    What is common though is that you still need a foundation in computational math facts. It's not magic either. It's a very human activity to multiply and divide numbers in your head. We've been doing it for centuries.

    In fact, it's fun when your kids get it down and enjoy the challenge of applying their math facts to a game or to a challenge. That's how I learned it way back in the fifties and sixties.

    I hope EDM goes away eventually. It may be fine for some students but I cannot support it as a standard method for math education in my home. My school district in California invested over $1M plus on EDM textbooks and materials plus PD contracts. They're trapped now because they sunk the costs in the program while telling teachers to get rid of the old math textbooks. And, parents are having to go to night classes to learn how to teach it at home. What is that all about?

    So it's more than just changing the methods, it's asking parents to become math teachers using a text that is strange and difficult to grasp. Most of the parents I know are really busy, tired from a day of work and have little free time to tutor their children but to read to them which is a blessing when it happens.

    I appreciate this blog and the Maine educators like Pam Kenney for giving another voice to this discussion.

  3. I found your blog through a friend who lives in Maine, and I'm thrilled there is a forum for parents and teachers to discuss important issues for our students. Though I am a supporter of "reform" curricula because they are based on research of students and learning, I greatly appreciate the challenges they cause for students, teachers, and parents.

    I would highly recommend all the readers of this blog check out "What's Math Got To Do With It?" by Jo Boaler, a professor in mathematics education. She makes a solid argument for how and why we need to change mathematics education that goes beyond the usual "reform" versus "traditional" discussion. I hope everyone finds it as inspiring as I did.

  4. While there are some math concepts that I haven't had to use since I learned them as a computer analyst/programmer/system engineer I couldn't have done my job without a grounding in math.

    The problem is that often people see methods of teaching as either this or that. That is, if not always, at least usually a false dichotomy. Combination methods work best because different students have different learning modalities.

    There's a lot of nifty-neat tricks to doing math faster but without a solid basic grounding in the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division those nifty tricks won't really give you a correct answer.

    Personally, I'd like the youngsters at the cash register during a power-outage to be able to make change without me or someone else willing to figure out the total of the order, and the money paid, and the difference for them until the power comes on.

    Really, basic survival math requires knowing this stuff cold and that takes some memorization. Practice makes it stick in the mind and then you add on the other bells and whistles. You need it for today's careers and for many of the mundane tasks of living.

    Math not just for engineers and scientists anymore.