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.