Baby boomers with bad memories of learning “new math”
in elementary school can be forgiven if they get an
unpleasant feeling of deja vu when confronted with
their children’s arithmetic homework. As Tom Lehrer sang:
It won't do you a bit of good to review math.
It's so simple,
So very simple,
That only a child can do it!
New math has
grown old, but now there is new new math. It dominates
the math curriculum in New York City schools and, like
its predecessor, baffles parents and attracts
Earlier this month, the city announced that last
year’s fourth graders scored far better on a state
standardized math test than fourth graders the
previous year. Most of the 2004-2005 fourth graders
had had some of the new new math. But the results are
unlikely to spur either side to call a truce in what
some have called the
For years, individual community school districts --
and sometimes even individual schools -- chose their
own math curriculum. But after Mayor Michael Bloomberg
won control of the school system in 2002, his
Department of Education instituted
uniform math and
language arts curriculums
in the vast majority of city schools.
Critics first attacked the idea of uniformity and
then the Department of Education for the programs it chose.
The selection for the reading curriculum revived the decades old
phonics -- in which students sound out words -- and
the whole language approach, where students learn to
recognize words in books, often of their own choosing.
To the chagrin of some,
the city went with whole language, supplemented by phonics instruction.
Rote Calculations vs. Complete Math
A similar battle revolves around math. This bitter
dispute pits proponents of a traditional approach
where students eschew calculators and learn the
fundamentals of rote calculations against advocates of
what is called constructivist or complete math. In complete math, students learn concepts and several
alternative ways of solving problems and try to
incorporate problems from real-life experiences. This,
its advocates say, helps students become mathematically
functioning or “numerate.” The work can bewilder even
a mathematically savvy parent whose mind boggles as
their children discuss “strategies" for solving
problems and, when subtracting, work their way from
left to right (starting with, say, hundreds and moving
to the tens and then ones) rather than the other way around, which is more traditional.
The city came down squarely on the side of reformers.
It selected Everyday
Math, a program developed at the University of Chicago
in the 1980s. Almost three million students in grades
kindergarten through six currently use it, according
to its Web site. Thomas Loveless of the Brooking
Institution has described it as “the most sensible” of
the new new math programs and Everyday Mathematics has
been endorsed by the National Science Foundation.
It also has attracted legions of critics. Some,
including a number of mathematicians, have formed an
organization called NYC HOLD
(it is supposed to stand for Honest Open Logical Decisions on
Mathematics Education Reform) to express concerns
about the program. One member of its steering
committee, mathematician Bastiann Braams, has
Everyday Mathematics “offer[s] a
hopelessly confusing potpourri of methods” for
computation and, by introducing calculators to very
young students “will contribute to the failure of many
pupils to acquire proper facility with numbers and
But supporters counter that the traditional approach
their critics remember so fondly did not work. To
bolster their case, they note that U.S. students do
not perform as well in math as their counterpoints
elsewhere in the world. “In the field of children's
learning of arithmetic, there is significant research
to show that the force-feeding of computational
procedures is harmful,”
Thomas C. O’Brien, a professor of education at
Southern Illinois University. “But the critics
continue to insist that arithmetic -- and knowledge in
general -- is inert stuff to be transmitted and
Since neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor his school chancellor Joel
Klein had any education experience to speak of, it is
generally believed they relied on the advice of Diana
Lam, then the number two person in the department, to
select a program. As superintendent in San Antonio,
Lam used Everyday Mathematics, and scores rose. After
she left, though, the system dropped the program.
It would be nice -- and no doubt a relief to New
Yorkers who simply want the city’s kids to get a good
education -- if the test scores announced in late
September could cast some light on this debate.
Unfortunately, they don’t.
Some of last year’s fourth graders had more than a
year and a half of Everyday Math when they took the
test. But many others attend schools where the program
had not yet been implemented.
Certainly the fourth grade scores seem like good news.
New York City fourth graders saw their scores rise
almost twice as sharply as did children in schools
throughout the state as a whole with more than
three-quarters of them meeting or exceeding state
standards. And the scores for black and Hispanic
fourth graders rose more than those for white
“If this isn’t good news, I don’t know what is,” Mayor
Bloomberg said. Calling the scores
“eye-popping,” the Daily News cheered, “clearly,
Many disagree, not all of them
Democrats interested in unseating the mayor. These critics
downplayed the significance of the results, seeing the
cloud around the silver lining.
Eighth Grade Scores Declined
Many pointed to the poor eighth grade results. Scores
for eighth graders declined by 1.6 points last year.
The middle school version of Everyday Mathematics --
Impact Mathematics -- is being used, but the change
came too late to affect last year’s eighth graders.
An analysis of the numbers by Public Advocate Betsy
Gotbaum found that in 76 city schools, not a single
eighth grader out of the more than 9,000 tested in
those schools got the highest of the four grades on the test. (The
tests are marked on a scale of one to four with four
meaning that a child far exceeds the state standards.)
In 39 of those schools, only 20 percent of kids met
state standards. “Clearly, we need to invest more
resources in our middle schools so that these students
will be prepared to succeed in high school," Gotbaum
said in a statement.
Election Year Statistics
Some questioned the validity of the scores, particularly in an election year. “New York State has
historically overstated gains in the state,” Diane
Ravitch, a professor of education at NYU, said in a
“Double digit leaps should raise eyebrows” said
Elizabeth Carson of HOLD, noting that large jumps in
some individuals schools “cause us to be extremely
cynical.” Problems could exist in how the text is
scored, for example, she said.
And while math and reading scores may have gone up
Ravitch said, all signs point to poorer student
performance in other areas. “It’s not just a matter
of having them [students] ready to take the test,”
she said. “but having them able to read science and
read history textbooks and make sense of them.”
Too Easy, Too Much Prepping, Taking Away From Other Subjects
Others, such as Clara Hemphill of Inside Schools, has
said the test may be too easy . (You can judge for
yourself by looking at
test questions (in pdf format).
Even if the test scores are completely valid, it is
difficult to use them to measure any single program
among the many Bloomberg and Klein have instituted in
the past three years. For better or worse, schools
now spend more time on reading and math than they did
previously -- and less on science, social students and
Schools have provided extra help to struggling
students. “The remedial effort and the intensive
effort for struggling students may be more effective
than the core curriculum,” said Carson.
Again for better or worse, teachers and principals put
a lot of emphasis on test preparation. Some schools
offer supplemental classes or tutoring to help
students bring up their scores. Students take practice
tests and are told in no uncertain terms that the
tests matter -- and matter a lot. For fourth graders,
the test can pay a major role in determining what
middle school the child will get into, spurring parents
to hire tutors and buy
Is It Curriculums, Or Teachers?
Chancellor Joel Klein himself has said he is not sure
how much difference a curriculum makes. “I think it’s
a less filling/tastes great,” debate he told James
Traub of the Times. “I don’t believe curriculums are
the key to education. I believe teachers are.”
It will take years before we know what, if any effect
Everyday Mathematics has on test scores -- and we may
not know even then. Carson notes that the state is
instituting new tests next year. That could make
comparison between years -- and between the pre and
post Bloomberg days -- largely meaningless.
BACK TO SCHOOL
The return to class for most of New York City 1.1
million public schools student proceeded calmly
-- except for first-day jitters, anticipation and
sometimes dread. The crises of previous years --
extreme teachers shortages or thousands of kids
finding themselves without classes or even a school to
attend -- appeared largely absent.
The city announced it would mark the new year by
extending its new promotion policy, which requires a
student to pass a standardized test, to seventh
graders. The Department of Education said it had
expanded gifted and talented programs to neighborhoods
-- particularly poorer parts of the city -- that had
had few if any such programs in the past. And it
opened 53 new small high schools, at least one of
which, Young Women's Leadership School in Queens,
did not have a home. Sixteen charter schools, which
are privately run but publicly funded, also began
operation, including one run by the United Federation
But while teachers teach and students learn,
controversies continue outside the classroom.
Education has been, and will continue to be, a key
issue in this year’s mayoral campaign. The state is
still fighting a court order that it provide billions
more dollars for education in the city.
And teachers and principals entered their third
academic year without a contract. Teachers union
president Randi Weingarten has called on the mayor to
reach agreement with the union and has threatened to
either endorse Fernando Ferrer or go out on strike if
he doesn’t. The latter would be illegal -- and would
certainly end the calm that marked the start of
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