Parents revolt against math fads

In Skydiving without Parachutes on Education News, Barry Garelick of World Class Math answers the question about a Seattle court case: “What’s a court doing making a decision on math textbooks and curriculum?”

In fact, the court did not rule on the textbook or curriculum. Rather, it ruled on the school board’s process of decision making — more accurately, the lack thereof. The court ordered the school board to revisit the decision.

King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector ruled that the Seattle school board’s decision-making process was “arbitrary and capricious,” ignoring key evidence, such as the state board of education’s finding that the discovery math series was “mathematically unsound.”


Parents are tired of seeing school board ignore the evidence that faddish math programs don’t work, Garelick writes.

They have suffered through Investigations in Number, Data and Space with its homework assignments asking students to show three ways to add 343 + 267 and draw pictures to illustrate what is going on. They have suffered through the ill-sequenced spiraling of Everyday Math, with fractions one day, geometry the next and the alternative (and inefficient) algorithms for multiplication and division. They have seen the ill-posed and open-ended problems for which their children have not been given prior instruction and who are asked to develop “strategies” for their solution. They have asked their kids to see the textbook to be told there is no textbook; only worksheets, and no worked examples.

Parents are tired of being forced to tutor their children at home or enroll them in Sylvan, Huntington or Kumon centers to learn what’s not being taught at school, Garelick writes. Parents who are scientists, mathematicians, engineers and teachers “understand the necessity of a solid foundation that is in a logical sequence which then builds upon itself.” They’re not going to accept math fads any more.

Update: Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey looks at the district’s only school to use  Singapore Math.  The PTA pays for the books and for an extra math teacher, Sabrina Kovacs-Storlie. The district’s approved program, Everyday Math, is “teaching to exposure,” she says. “We are teaching to mastery.”

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  1. Marsha Ratzel says:

    Too bad for Seattle’s kids. There’s plenty of data and studies to support both sides of the math wars. What blows my mind is that parents think they are the experts instead of letting teachers use their professional expertise in deciding curriculum. Then to take it to a court where it is far, far, far away from students and knowing those studnets. Well, it’s a shame…not surprising in this world when you don’t get your way, you sue, though.

    What either side of the Math Wars camp need is highly trained teachers. The computational math can be just as deadly if the only thing it creates is robotic calculating studnets. Discovery math can be fatal is the computational underpinnings aren’t there.

    The beauty of well trained teacher is the expertise they use in getting the perfect balance of computation and conceptual learning. One without the other is not going to serve students well in their upcoming lives. The last place I think a court should be is deciding what a teacher should do in the best interests of their students. Teachers who work with students everyday, every year know much better what will work and what won’t work for kids…….this isn’t where the court’s expertise is best used. And while parents know their student better than a teacher, I seriously doubt a parent can know what’s best for the entire class of students better than the teacher.

    Maybe what these parents should have been working for is to improve training for teachers…giving them additional time for lesson prep….anything that would build up the expertise and teaching ability of the classroom teacher.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Could be a blip. Could be the start of the twilight of the experts. You could always refer to AGW when complaining about some other counter-intuitive nonsense.

  3. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Marsha, read the article again. The court did not rule on the math curriculum. It ruled that the board of education failed to follow policy.

  4. (Aubrey): “You could always refer to AGW when complaining about some other counter-intuitive nonsense.”
    Glen Reynolds (Instapundit) agrees. Reynolds related AGW to the Bellisiles fraud Arming America: The Origin of a National Gun Culture. Professional (i.e., academic) historians supported Bellisiles–read the reviews. They’re a hoot. While we can only infer motives, nothing hides the reality of academic group-think.

    Experts have something to contribute, but it’s important that experts not choose the experts, or policy becomes a game reserved for insiders, and nobody (aside from Socrates) ever equated “smart” with “well-intentioned”.

  5. scrooge mcduck says:

    What blows my mind is that parents think they are the experts instead of letting teachers use their professional expertise in deciding curriculum.

    There are some teachers who, given the choice, would not use the inquiry-based materials. But Marhs’s comment illustrates what the op-ed is talking about: parents are dismissed as knowing anything about math. Perhaps they may not be experts in pedagogy, but those who are in the science, engineering or math fields certainly know what content students need to master–and they also can see that their kids aren’t getting it. Teacher training is not necessarily the answer. Using the analogy of jumping from a plane without a parachute, there is no “right” way to train someone to do that.

  6. Sorry about all the confusion in Masha R’s thinking.

    She needs to go to Seattle Math Group and download all the documents used at the Court.

    Initial Appeal, Plaintiffs Statement #1, Defendants response, Plaintiffs reply, Hearing transcript of the trial, and the judgment.

    If all that evidence is available that she claims was available to counter the Plaintiffs claim, why was not of it used at trial?

    The SPS argument was we used the right steps, the result does not really matter.

    Plaintiffs clearly showed that Defendents stacked the adoption committee and in 1100 pages of material in which the Board used to make their adoption decision did not include a single page of Public Testimony or letters & data submitted by the public.

    Defendants submitted NMAP and 200+ pages of information from the public.

    The Judge ruled that the School Board needed to reconsider their decision using all the evidence.

    …. Because “The court finds, based upon a review of the entire administrative record, that there is insufficient evidence for any reasonable Board member to approve the selection of the Discovering series.”

  7. Parents do know what is best. We have become educated by talking with the experts and examining the evidence. We experience these programs front-line. We see the outcomes.

    “Maybe what these parents should have been working for is to improve training for teachers…giving them additional time for lesson prep….anything that would build up the expertise and teaching ability of the classroom teacher”

    In other words, have the parent trust that jumping from an airplane without a parachute can be done better if we give the instructor more time.

    Hmmm. I still think the jumper won’t end up too happy.

    Enough of the nonsense. Mr. Garelick’s analogy is spot on. Just as the jumper doesn’t get a second chance, so, too, do our children not get a second chance.

  8. ————-
    Also in regard to data: see what nearly a decade of Reform math in Bellevue, Washington
    (just across the Lake from Seattle)
    produced most of the time by TERC/Investigations, Connected Math, and Core-Plus:

    Bellevue School District results.
    Quick summary of gap changes over the decade studied 1998-2007

    MATH Change
    Black -35.3
    Hispanic -13.1
    READ Change
    Black -5.1
    Hispanic 18.7
    WRITE Change
    Black 4.2
    Hispanic 7.8 =========

    MATH Change
    Black -21.1
    Hispanic -18.3
    READ Change
    Black -24.1
    Hispanic 10.9
    WRITE Change
    Black -24.7
    Hispanic 0.7

    MATH Change
    Black -17.3
    Hispanic -2.5
    READ Change
    Black 2.4
    Hispanic 23.8
    WRITE Change
    Black 7.2
    Hispanic 10.1

    Here comes average change across all three grade levels

    MATH Change
    Black -24.6
    Hispanic -11.3
    READ Change
    Black -8.9
    Hispanic 17.8
    WRITE Change
    Black -4.4
    Hispanic 6.2

    Note: how much worse the situation is in Math than in reading or writing.

    Although we are parents and grand-parents that has, unlike Seattle Central Administration or the majority of Seattle’s School Directors, NOT impaired our ability to intelligently apply relevant data.

    It only cost us and others thousands of hours of work and $13,140 to make a point that should have been obvious long ago.

    Still some people just do not get it.

    If you get it? Then join the ranks of the others and …
    Please send a donation to Seattle Math Group.

    (last time I checked in addition to being an ignorant grand-parent, I had taught in 4 states over 30+ years, have a degree in mathematics with a teaching credential, have been a member of the NAACP, am a current Washington State Board of Education Math Advisory Panel, and write the Math Underground. I spent over three years testifying usually twice monthly at Seattle School Board meetings.)

    At the school board meeting, which followed the adoption of “Discovering”, Martha McLaren and I told the board that after years of testifying and this outrageous adoption decision we were taking them to court and we did.

    Get ready for the Next Legal action.

  9. I talk to elementary and secondary math teachers every chance I get. MOST of them will tell you in private they don’t feel programs like Investigations and Everyday Math are adaquate. Any good teacher will supplement what ever program they use with what ever material they think their students need. Notice I said in private. It’s not the teachers! They are following orders from Curriculum Directors, Principals, and Superintendents who have been convinced by the publishers and often by state departments of education, and their cohorts, that these programs must be followed to the letter to be effective. As far as qualified teachers in Maine, check out the 2009 report from the Maine Department of Education on “Highly Qualified Teachers”
    Don’t kid youself there are some teachers who believe the propaganda but I think most teachers know their students are not being challenged to their full potential using these programs exclusively. Another interesting fact is that most elementary schools in Maine that use either Investigations or Everyday Math use Saxon Math with their special-ed students. Why?
    Pat Murray
    Pat Murray

  10. Not wanting to dive into the math wars… I just have a quibble: What’s wrong with asking kids 3 ways to add 343 and 267? There’s real math in that question. For example: understanding the commutative property: 343+267 = 267+343. Or of place-value and the distributive property: (300+200) + (40+60) + (3+7).

    I am a scientist and college professor… unfortunately, most of my students can’t add unless they have a calculator, and I don’t think they really understand place-value, distributive property, etc.

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    “I just have a quibble: What’s wrong with asking kids 3 ways to add 343 and 267?”

    The folks who don’t like Everyday Math and TERC would likely say that empirically, the programs that ask these questions are much more likely to produce kids who can’t actually add the numbers together and reliably get the correct answer. In short, for most kids this doesn’t work.

    If one accepts this claim (note that I provided no evidence), one could start asking why this doesn’t work. There *IS* evidence that many elementary school teachers do not understand things like place-value and how fractions work (“Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics” by Liping Ma). Asking these teachers to teach in a way that *requires* deep understanding when they do not have it themselves is asking for trouble.

    [Of course, if one believes that the three-ways approach empirically works, then it is pretty silly not to follow it …]

    -Mark Roulo

  12. jab – there is absolutely nothing wrong with children having many different strategies for solving problems. The problem with reform based programs is that they don’t teach any strategies to fluency, much less mastery. For many of these programs, like TERC Investigations and Every Day Math, calculator dependence is a virtual given. These programs expose children to multiple different strategies (except the standard algorithms), give them a few opportunities to play with the strategies, and then hand them a calculator when the problems become too “difficult” to solve. Whether the kids get the correct answer is irrelevant – what is relevant in these programs is that the process is followed. So 6 + 6 = 16 is perfectly acceptable if the proper process is followed when solving 6 + 6. The standard algorithms aren’t taught at all, subtraction is taught as backwards addition, and long division is ignored in favor of a calculator. Multiple strategies are perfectly fine – as long as they’re taught without discrimination and mastered.

    MS Ratzel, I find your attitude frightening, and more than slightly offensive. Parents are experts when it comes to their children. No one knows my children better than me. No one bears a higher burden or greater responsibility for my children than do I. More than anyone else, it is my job as a parent to provide for my children’s education and to ensure that the education they receive meets my expectations. Those children are MY children.

    If I disagree with the program of study my school district selects, if I believe that the program they select will not provide my children with the skills they need to succeed, then it is my job to raise those concerns. The schools in this country are accountable to me – not the state – not the federal government – ME.

    I am not a spectator or a cheerleader – I am a parent and when professional educators make decisions that harm my children, I will question them. If that makes you, or any other professional educator uncomfortable then maybe you ought to consider a different career.

  13. J.D. Salinger says:

    The folks who don’t like Everyday Math and TERC would likely say that empirically, the programs that ask these questions are much more likely to produce kids who can’t actually add the numbers together and reliably get the correct answer. In short, for most kids this doesn’t work.

    Oh, those silly folks who don’t like Everyday Math and TERC!

  14. Math Mom New Jersey says:

    It’s hard to trust a teacher when many of them have no “real” mathematical education, having never taken calculus, statistics or probability in college. The new american teacher now takes courses on how to teach math, but is not required to take real math courses.

    Parents who working in mathematical professions, such as finance, engineering, economics or statistics are infinitely more qualified to know what requisite knowledge their children will need for the future. After all, our generation became engineers, mathematicians and economist by learning traditional mathematics, not the bastardization that reform math offers. Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Tim Geitner learned traditional math, not reform math.

    Sad to say, but the controversial McKinsey report does holds true. “The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a non-profit organisation, says America typically recruits teachers from the bottom third of college graduates.”

    Who better knows what and how our children should learn? Their highly educated parents or a generalist teacher?

  15. Student of History says:


    There’s a limited amount of time in the school day so if adding is automatic you should be moving on and applying the skill to new problems and skills.

    My then 4th grader, who’s now a senior, reacted to the EM alternative methods by asking why they couldn’t teach base 10 properly so the class could move on to fractions.

    I think there was some truth to his analysis.

  16. Marsha needs to be wary of repeating the statement that there is plenty of data on both sides of the math war to support their views. The data on the reformist/constructivist side of the debate (the controlling side within education today)shows that 70% of community college students are taking remedial math, up to 40% in four-year colleges are in the same boat, and $4 billion is being spent annually in the U.S. on remedial education with most of that going for math instruction. This rising tide of math destruction began in the 1960’s and was codified by state legislatures starting in 1990, when the reformists took over math education.

    And the arrogance that teachers should be left alone to teach because they are the experts and parents should stay out of the picture…That’s been a major cause of the problem–the pushing of parents out of the picture with convoluted curriculum they can’t understand. That is NO way to win their support when educators they need that extra understanding for teacher training and materials (tax dollars).

    We cannot afford to lose more children in this adult war–a war fought by those who insist ideology is more important than results and that only teachers know what’s best for the children.

  17. “Parents are tired of being forced to tutor their children at home or enroll them in Sylvan, Huntington or Kumon centers to learn what’s not being taught at school, Garelick writes. Parents who are scientists, mathematicians, engineers and teachers “understand the necessity of a solid foundation that is in a logical sequence which then builds upon itself.” They’re not going to accept math fads any more.”

    I must tutor my children at home with Singapore Math. I am a parent, math teacher and engineer. My engineering background made me question what my children were learning at school. Ultimately, I am responsible for ensuring the my children are prepared in life.

    Parents must have a say in our children’s education because we do have their best interests at heart.

    Thank you, Mr. Garelick, for the great article and representing our interests.

  18. MOMwithAbrain says:

    What’s amazing is how some people blindly trust these school administrators. Geesh if it were that simple we wouldn’t have so many kids falling through the cracks.
    Parents need to do their own homework. Fuzzy/Reform math is a horrible way to teach kids math. Most end up hating it and never really master the concepts. Sure there are those who do well, but when so many people all around the country rise up against a “fad”, one should take note.

    Were grassroot orgs taking shape when kids were being taught using a traditional math program? NOPE. It was only when the Constructivists thought kids should “discover” math that it became a problem.

    Doesn’t make sense to re-invent the wheel.

  19. I teach in a district that insists Everyday Math is our curriculum and we cannot use anything else. Someone at the district level overrulled the committee that selected another curriculum. Now test scores have plummeted; I work with a teacher who had 100% of her students pass the TAKS test, last year 17%.

    Of course it’s all the teachers’ faults.

  20. Check it out a major skirmish in the math wars ….

    Big Money Key Press takes on the Seattle Math Group

    SMG returns fire with evidence

    SMG is big on evidence

    Is Key Presses big press “Arbitrary and Capricious”
    for lack of evidence?

  21. >What blows my mind is that parents think they are the experts
    >instead of letting teachers use their professional expertise in
    >deciding curriculum.

    Yeah, because we’ve only been teaching math to kids for a couple thousand years or so and it’s still a subject that only highly trained experts can teach.

    The Greeks had a word for this, back when they were inventing some of the basics of math: hubris. After hubris comes nemesis, which leads to utter downfall. And that’s what I expect will play out for the US educational system over the next few decades.

  22. i hope all the parents out there can hear and understand one thing: teachers do NOT make the call about which curriculum that get to teach. we may be asked to sit on committees and look through curriculum, and sometimes the board will even ask for our opinion. but they don’t actually care what it is. they really don’t. they care about keeping up with the trends and picking curriculums that come with grant money.

    now, a teacher like myself. . .one that actually did have to take several “real” math courses (even though i’m elementary certified) as well as several pedogogical courses. . .can simply close my door and teach how i want. but when the admins walk in, you better believe that i pretend to be using their curriculum. really, i have a set of mcgraw hill math books that are very straight forward. i use those unless there is a walk through. i’m not even supposed to have those. all of those books are supposed to be getting dusty in the district warehouse. i’ve already been taken to task several times in the last few years for not using the correct curriculum. but their curriculum is crap and not best suited for my students.

    anyway, my point is this: stop being all pissy at teachers as if we have any say in what curriculum is taught. they only thing we can do is ignore the mandates and hope we don’t get disciplined for it.

    and to laura, the person you quoted was not saying to give more time for prepping the crappy math lessons. they were saying to give more time to prep lessons that teach both the skill and the concept, rather than one or the other.

  23. Bullseye. My experience exactly.

    I put both my children in Kumon. We waited too late for the older one; the younger daughter thrived in the Kumon environment for a few years and got a great jump-start on math.

  24. Julia, You’re awesome!

  25. Julia – I’m not angry with teachers for following the programs they are ordered to follow. I am, however, disappointed that teachers generally refuse to speak against these programs when they’re forced on them.

    Elected School Boards rarely listen to parents but they do listen to teachers – more so than administrators because they know that administrators have agendas. Were just a handful of teachers willing to speak out against these reformist programs in public to their school board members, I suspect that reformism wouldn’t be as widespread as it is now. I do understand that many teachers fear reprisals if they take an active stance, but I find that level of, well, cowardice, unsettling.

    Children learn what behaviors are and are not appropriate by watching how we adults interact and respond to conflict. Teachers, even grade school teachers, have a tremendous influence in shaping children’s opinions and beliefs. I can’t help but wonder what we’re teaching our children about courage and integrity when our teachers refuse to do or say anything when they are forced to follow programs they believe will fail their students.

  26. It is very encouraging to read the comments by parents and teachers. I have been reading Barry Garelick’s comments for three years. I think Barry would agree that parents and teachers are speaking out more and they are more informed now about the true nature of the problems created by these early math programs like Investigations and Everyday Math. The damage continues into the middle grades with Connected Math and Math Thematics.
    Then students find themselves in high school where they use real text books with real math problems; that speak in the real math language and they are lost. The ones still in school who haven’t given up on themselves.
    Many times I have read accounts of parents being told by school administrators that it is not the program used that is important, it is the teacher. Having good quality teachers is the most important factor. So when 25-30% are dropping out and less than half the students that remain are meeting standards, I guess that means the administration is responsible for allowing unqualified teachers to continue teaching.
    We have also heard the same administrators telling parents that these same teachers know what is best for our children. This is irony in it’s purest form.
    Over the past three years I have collected lots of information you might find interesting. You can find out about our situation in Maine at:

  27. EnoughAlready says:

    Discovering or inquiry learning can be done bad or good. Same for traditional methods. Shouldn’t we work to improve the methodologies and not debate which is better? Even the NMAP report clearly stated: High-quality research does not support the contention that instruction should be either entirely “student centered” or “teacher directed.”

    When will the war end so that we work together to improve both methodologies?


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