Same old new math

Common Core’s Newer Math is a lot like like the old new math, writes David G. Bonagura Jr., a teacher and writer, in National Review Online.

In 1961, New Math “was supposed to transform mathematics education by emphasizing concepts and theories rather than traditional computation,” as this article shows.

Flash forward 50 years, and Common Core is today making the same promises:

The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

New Math, Sequential Math, Math A/B, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards also “promised to transform (America’s children) into young Einsteins and Aristotles,” writes Bonagura. It didn’t work out that way.

Despite claims that Common Core doesn’t tell teachers how to teach, the new standards come with a flawed pedagogy, Bonagura charges. “Common Core buries students in concepts at the expense of content.”

Take, for example, my first-grade son’s Common Core math lesson in basic subtraction. Six- and seven-year-olds do not yet possess the ability to think abstractly; their mathematics instruction, therefore, must employ concrete methodologies, explanations, and examples. But rather than, say, count on a number line or use objects, Common Core’s standards mandate teaching first-graders to “decompose” two-digit numbers in an effort to emphasize the concept of place value. Thus 13 – 4 is warped into 13 – 3 = 10 – 1 = 9. Decomposition is a useful skill for older children, but my first-grade son has no clue what it is about or how to do it.

Students can’t just solve math problems and show their work, he writes. They need to provide a written explanation.

With sons in first and third grade, he’s seen Common Core math books that “devote enormous space to word problems that have to be answered verbally as well as numerically, some in sections called Write Math.”

That makes math much harder for students who aren’t proficient in English or in reading and writing, Bongagura points out. (Handwriting was very difficult or both my brothers.)

With so much focus on teaching students the “why” of math, teachers will have little time to teach the “how,” Bonagura predicts.

Mathematical concepts require a high aptitude for abstract thinking — a skill not possessed by young children and never attained by many. What will happen to students who already struggle with math when they not only are forced to explain what they do not understand, but are presented new material in abstract conceptual formats?

“Instead of developing college- and career-ready students, we will have another generation of students who cannot even make change from a $5 bill.”

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  1. Crimson Wife says:

    The “decomposition” is how Asian kids learn math- and their 6 y.o’s don’t seem to have a problem with it. Neither did mine when using Singapore Math in our homeschool.

    • We’ve had success with Singapore math too, but I don’t think it did the decomposition quite that early (we started with 2nd grade books, though, and it did do it part way through the year). But, Singapore math invests a lot of time in learning fundamentals – all of that time with ‘number families’ where kids see that if 2+3=5, then 5-2=3 gives them a good ‘number sense’. I don’t know if common core has kids do that much ‘drill’. I will say that my kid can do a lot more math in his head than I could. I’m going to be interested in seeing how this approach works with my younger child, who doesn’t find math to be as intuitive. A surprisingly high number of kids use Singapore math at our co-op, though, and I’d be shocked if all of them are kids with a natural affinity to math.

  2. I don’t know much about “Singapore Math” however the average quantitative IQ of East Asians is about 110. Approaches that work well with East Asian children will not necessarily work well with other demographics.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    Thus 13 – 4 is warped into 13 – 3 = 10 – 1 = 9.

    Technical note. The standards don’t say this. Which is good because the equals sign is mis-used and the example given by David is wrong. The standards say this:

    13 – 4 = 13 – 3 – 1 = 10 – 1 = 9

    Which is correct.


    I still don’t have an opinion on the content of Common Core.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I had been wondering about that. Thank you.

      Still, that’s trickier than it looks. You have to be able to intuit that it’s 13-3 *minus* 1 and not 13-3 *plus* one (or looked at another way, that 13-3-1=13-4 and not 13-2).

  4. How about going back to how I learned addition and subtraction, by use of carrying and borrowing.

    On 2nd thought, that would make too much sense.