Return to Basics in Teaching Math

Critics of “Fuzzy” Methods Cheer Educators’ Findings; Drills Without Calculators. Taking Cues from Singapore.
John Hechinger:

The nation’s math teachers, on the front lines of a 17-year curriculum war, are getting some new marching orders: Make sure students learn the basics.
In a report to be released today, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which represents 100,000 educators from prekindergarten through college, will give ammunition to traditionalists who believe schools should focus heavily and early on teaching such fundamentals as multiplication tables and long division.
The council’s advice is striking because in 1989 it touched off the so-called math wars by promoting open-ended problem solving over drilling. Back then, it recommended that students as young as those in kindergarten use calculators in class.
Those recommendations horrified many educators, especially college math professors alarmed by a rising tide of freshmen needing remediation. The council’s 1989 report influenced textbooks and led to what are commonly called “reform math” programs, which are used in school systems across the country.
Francis Fennell, the council’s president, says the latest guidelines move closer to the curriculum of Asian countries such as Singapore, whose students tend to perform better on international tests. There, children focus intensely on a relative handful of topics, such as multiplication, division and algebra, then practice by solving increasingly difficult word and other problems. That contrasts sharply with the U.S. approach, which the report noted has long been described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
If school systems adopt the math council’s new approach, their classes might resemble those at Garfield Elementary School in Revere, Mass., just north of Boston. Three-quarters of Garfield’s students receive free and reduced lunches, and many are the children of recent immigrants from such countries as Brazil, Cambodia and El Salvador.
Three years ago, Garfield started using Singapore Math, a curriculum modeled on that country’s official program and now used in about 300 school systems in the U.S. Many school systems and parents regard Singapore Math as an antidote for “reform math” programs that arose from the math council’s earlier recommendations.
The Singapore Math curriculum differs sharply from reform math programs, which often ask students to “discover” on their own the way to perform multiplication and division and other operations, and have come to be known as “constructivist” math.


Strong parent and teacher views on the MMSD’s math strategy may well spill over to non-support for referendums and incumbent board members, particularly in light of increasing UW Math Department activism on this vital matter.

6 thoughts on “Return to Basics in Teaching Math”

  1. Since the NCTM, the “experts” in teaching math, back in 1989 pushed a soft, fuzzy math education program with the result that most young adults, and the current set of the 12 grades of kids, and most kids in college (and likely anyone under 50) — remember, New Math arose in the late 60’s — have little understanding of math, why should we care what these “experts” are telling us now? Should their opinions be trusted? Is this conversion based the same kind of fuzzy thinking that led to the 1989 opinion?
    I want proof that these educators are smarter than their 1989 counterparts, that they have justified their positions with solid facts, that their recommendations are well-thought out and fully analyzed, that their conclusions follow from those facts inexorably — that they are right! And, that they know their limitations.
    Just because some of us believe that they are finally moving back to “our” corner doesn’t mean we’ve been vindicated, that they haven’t taken their positions past what their facts and rationale can support! Those of us who believe that the current math curricula are at best ineffective, are more likely win some arguments on this matter; but, that is all!
    Being right is not synonymous with winning arguments, or being in the majority.
    Winning the political battle over this issue is just as likely to mean that the “winners” will take their positions to the unjustified extreme, just as the 1989 winners did.

  2. Larry,
    Excellent point. As much as I am delighted that NCTM has finally decided that students need a solid foundation in the fundamentals of math, you are right in pointing out that we need data. As someone said, “Without data you’re simply another person with an opinion.”

  3. Fans of Everyday Math may want to see the site below.
    After windexing my crystal ball, I peered into the future. Textbook publishers in collusion with teaching schools and other educrats will develop “balanced math” in response to the NCTM report. As with reading, however, it will be 90-95% constructivist with a little “basics” thrown in incidentally. Guided math, silent math and working collaboratively with your peers will become the rage.
    Since these cycles usually last about 15 years, we can expect a return to proper instructivism somewhere around the year 2021.

  4. Let me recommend that people read the Focal Points report. It is an improvement over
    earlier documents from NCTM, and the Madison Metropolitan School District should seriously
    consider rewriting their Standards using Focal Points as a guide. The Department of Public
    Instruction should also redo their Math Standards. You can find the Focal Points
    report at

  5. Hurrah! At this rate, it should only take about ten years for MMSD to wake up and move back the other way towards an international-level standard. Thanks for the reference, Richard. I will make a point of reading it as soon as I possibly can!

Comments are closed.