As controversies rage about the best way to teach math and whether students should be allowed to use calculators — incidentally, the State Education Department on Dec. 1 declared that calculators will now be considered teaching materials, like textbooks, and schools must provide them to students — the real question is why children in this country are not better at learning math. Is it the curriculum? Is it the equipment? Is it the tests? And, haven’t we heard all this before?
In 1957, the Russians sent up Sputnik, stealing a march in the space race, and the United States decided that something had to be done, in a hurry, about math and science instruction in this country. Thus were born National Science Foundation grants to teachers of math and science so that they might get master’s degrees in their subjects rather than in education. A generation of teachers excitedly brought their advanced knowledge back to their classrooms.
Also in the early ’60s, the so-called New Math was influencing curricula across the country. The result was an emphasis on concepts to the detriment of the basics. Naturally, there was an eventual backlash when parents could no longer understand their children’s homework.
By the ’70s, teachers in middle and high schools were noticing that students were getting weaker on their recall of times tables and other basics. This could not then be blamed on calculators because there were no calculators yet in general use.
More on math here.