Kevin Knudsen is a professor of mathematics at the University of Florida
Math can’t catch a break. These days, people on both ends of the political spectrum are lining up to deride the Common Core standards, a set of guidelines for K-12 education in reading and mathematics. The Common Core standards outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. States don’t have to adopt the standards, although many did in an effort to receive funds from President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.
Conservatives oppose the guidelines because they generally dislike any suggestion that the federal government might have a role to play in public education at the state and local level; these standards, then, are perceived as a threat to local control.
Liberals, mostly via teachers’ unions, decry the use of the standards and the associated assessments to evaluate classroom instructors.
And parents of all persuasions are panicked by their sudden inability to help their children with their homework. Even comedian Louis CK got in on the discussion (via Twitter; he has since deactivated his account).
My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core! — Louis CK (@louisck) April 28 2014
In the middle are millions of American schoolchildren who are often confused and frustrated by these “new” ways of teaching mathematics.
Thing is, we’ve been down this path before.
The old New Math
When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States went into panic mode. Our schools needed to emphasize math and science so that we wouldn’t fall behind the Soviet Union and its allegedly superior scientists. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act, which poured money into the American education system at all levels.
One result of this was the so-called New Math, which focused more on conceptual understanding of mathematics over rote memorization of arithmetic. Set theory took a central role, forcing students to think of numbers as sets of objects rather than abstract symbols to be manipulated. This is actually how numbers are constructed logically in an advanced undergraduate mathematics course on real analysis, but it may not necessarily be the best way to communicate ideas like addition to schoolchildren. Arithmetic using number bases other than 10 also entered the scene. This was famously spoofed by Tom Lehrer in his song “New Math.”
I attended elementary school in the 1970s, so I missed New Math’s implementation, and it was largely gone by the time I got started. But the way Lehrer tries to explain how subtraction “used to be done” made no sense to me at first (I did figure it out after a minute). In fact, the New Math method he ridicules is how children of my generation – and many of the Common Core-protesting parents of today – learned to do it, even if some of us don’t really understand what the whole borrowing thing is conceptually. Clearly some of the New Math ideas took root, and math education is better for it. For example, given the ubiquity of computers in modern life, it’s useful for today’s students to learn to do binary arithmetic – adding and subtracting numbers in base 2 just as a computer does.
The New Math fell into disfavor mostly because of complaints from parents and teachers. Parents were unhappy because they couldn’t understand their children’s homework. Teachers objected because they were often unprepared to instruct their students in the new methods. In short, it was the implementation of these new concepts that led to the failure, more than the curriculum itself.