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The math critic June 9, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, math, teaching, younger son.
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The private school that my younger son attends uses the same math program as the Fargo Public Schools.  It’s a program called Everyday Math.  During the last few months, after my son switched to the school, he was actually using two math programs: the one at school as well as Stanford’s EPGY online math program.

In discussing how to move forward with the boy’s academics, my husband and I have been very impressed with the EPGY program as well as the younger son’s attitude toward it.

The school, of course, would really rather he stay in the classroom and maybe go to an upper-level classroom for his math instruction.  When we were looking at options, I told the principal that I didn’t really like Everyday Math.  Admittedly, I haven’t seen a lot of the program, but what I have seen bugs me.

About the time Fargo adopted the program, I was starting to homeschool the older boy.  I didn’t look into the program because I’d heard it wasn’t the best.  Instead, I chose to use Singapore math for the math component of his homeschooling education.  That was a few years ago, so I knew that I didn’t particularly like the program, but I didn’t have any specific objections.

Before school ended, the school principal handed me a copy of the state math standards.  I’m guessing he is worried I think the program doesn’t teach to the standards or that I think they aren’t following the standards – or maybe even that I don’t realize there are standards.

Since this conversation took place, I’ve spent some time researching Everyday Mathematics, and I’m now even more convinced that this is not a program I want my son using.  (A good starting point is this page.)

Unlike a lot of the objections, I don’t think constructivist math is bad.  The fact that they teach alternative algorithms is great.  (I personally am a huge fan of lattice multiplication, and even though I don’t use it myself, my older son uses it unfailingly.)  I think that learning to explore and play with math is a good thing.  My objection is that it doesn’t have the kind of implementation that Singapore has.  There doesn’t seem to be a logical flow, there is no textbook, and it does omit teaching some things that I DO think are important (like that pesky long division).

Let’s face it: my objection is that any math program, no matter how well written, will suffer if the person teaching it doesn’t have a decent background in math, and most elementary school teachers do not.  Making a student rely solely on a teacher presentation because there is no textbook will certainly spell disaster for some students.  If a student doesn’t understand during the presentation, they don’t have much recourse…and the methods used are not ones that most parents have grown up with, leaving them unable to help much.

Second, Singapore has a great progression, allowing kids to see how the concepts are connected, building from previous material.  This isn’t strictly going from one concept to another, but within a concept, moving from concrete examples to abstract application.  It also teaches the use of mental math – which basically means one uses shortcuts or handy rules that can be used once there is already an understanding of the concepts.  This is how I view long division, and that’s why it’s a shame it isn’t taught.  The algorithms presented in Everyday Mathematics may be useful as teaching the concept, but they’re, in many cases, very impractical for everyday use.

Finally, there is the jumping around.  Repetition and cycling are not inherently bad things, but they can be done without a seemingly random approach.  In fact, it’s much better if they’re not done randomly.  The best way to retain knowledge is to attach it to something you’ve learned before.  That is, it’s best to have a point of reference.  By randomly approaching the topics that need to be addressed, they’re removing the foundation and sense of connectedness that should be present in a well-taught mathematics curriculum.

Those are my objections, at least.  I’m not sure how to approach this with the school, or whether I even should.  I am considering seeing if they have some sort of curriculum committee where I could be involved.  I’m also contemplating letting the principal know that there is a lot of controversy surrounding this curriculum, including extremely poor evaluations in other states like California and Texas.  I feel fortunate that we have good reason to keep my son on the EPGY program, but I feel bad for the other kids who are learning math in such a haphazard way.

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