The sad legacy of everyday math

[Everyday Math, I gather, is still very much in use, and so I thought it worthwhile to recycle this old post from Out in Left Field.]

Twice this past week I saw shocking examples of the cumulative effects of Everyday Math. Last Thursday I visited a nearby private school with sliding scale tuition and a diversity of students. For years the school had used Everyday Math, but recently, with the encouragement of a friend and colleague of mine who advises schools on math curricula, they’d begun to use Singapore Math. They’re phasing it in gradually, however, and currently don’t introduce it until 4th grade. For the first few grades, like nearly every other school in Philadelphia, they use Everyday Math.

So the 4th graders I observed had only been using Singapore Math since September. Their teacher was walking them through a topic in the 3rd grade Singapore Math curriculum: how to multiply and reduce fractions. And no one in the class who tried to answer the teacher’s questions got a single answer right. They didn’t know how to find ¼ of a 20, and they didn’t know how to reduce 5/20.

The next day I spent my first session of the school year with a group of children of French African immigrant parents who had enrolled them in an after school enrichment program I’m involved with. They were four Everyday Math-educated 5th graders, and I was exploring their mastery of addition and subtraction. Addition went fine: they know how to stack numbers and carry from one digit to the next. Subtraction was another story.

Heartened by their success adding two three-digit numbers, I asked them how to do 1000 – 91. All but one of the five students were stumped. Most got the same number: 1011. Two things had stumped them: 0 – 1, which they thought was 1, and how to borrow across more than one digit. So I gave them an easier problem, 100-71–and they were equally stumped, again getting answers that were larger than the number they were subtracting from. So I began the tricky process of teaching them how to borrow across more than one digit.

The great thing is that they were hooked. When I asked them whether their answers should be bigger or smaller than the number they were subtracting from, they all answered “smaller.” When I then asked them whether their answers were, in fact, smaller, they looked down at their sheets, and then up at me, and I had their undivided attention. These are good kids: they want to learn. And they like math.

You can’t blame the mathematical deficiencies of these 4th and 5th graders on their parents: both the private school and the after school program select for parents who care about education. You can’t blame it on the kids: my kids, who clearly wanted to learn, and had been admitted in part based on their behavior; in the private school classroom I saw, they were very well behaved. You can’t blame it on class size: the classes I observed contained between 7 and 12 students. You can’t blame it on the teachers: the teachers I saw seemed well above average in their ability to engage their students in the material at hand.

No, I’m afraid there’s only one thing we can blame here, much as the developers of the Everyday Math monolith would like to claim otherwise.

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