What’s Wrong with the New Math Curriculum?

Karen Smith


The curriculum developers in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) have been genuinely puzzled (and not a little hurt) by the hue and cry raised by parents and teachers over the new MCPS math curriculum.  These are, generally speaking, bright, well-meaning, dedicated people who have been laboring long and hard to put together the very best curriculum they can.  This new curriculum must meet the needs of a diverse population and conform to stringent new state and federal guidelines and requirements.  Having worked so hard on this difficult task while answering to multiple taskmasters, they cannot imagine that there could be anything fundamentally wrong with their final product.  Education school professors, well-respected within the field, have touted Maryland’s curriculum content standards for years; Acheive, an “independent” educational consulting firm, has been reported as having given the new MCPS curriculum high marks, supposedly with little criticism.  What’s wrong with these parents who are upset about the new curriculum?  What’s up with these complaining teachers?

MCPS, knowing that it is dealing with a highly educated and persistent parent body, has tried to explain the new curriculum better to them.  If only you understood a little more about our pedagogy, the thinking goes, you would be as excited as we are about the new curriculum.  Thus MCPS has set out to communicate its thinking to parents in myriad ways:  holding cluster-by-cluster informational sessions on the new math curriculum, holding a county-wide televised public forum on the new math curriculum, sending out general parent guides to the new curriculum, and developing detailed grade-by-grade parent guides.

Teachers in K-8 are subjected to a slightly more condescending version of this same notion:  if only you knew more about math, you would be able to see the superiority of this new curriculum over the old; if only you had more/better training in the new curriculum, you would like it better; the first year of anything new is hard; kids rise to the level of expectation, and you/we haven’t been expecting enough of them.  Some of this is even true, though it does not, in the end, answer the teachers’ concerns.  More and more intensive teacher training is in the works.

The problem with all of MCPS’ well-intentioned efforts to persuade parents and teachers that this is a fundamentally sound math curriculum is that it is not (fundamentally sound).  Acheive was right to praise MCPS’ alignment of its curriculum to the Maryland content standards:  MCPS has done nothing more nor less than to draft its curriculum from those standards.  (Indeed, the new MCPS curriculum and the Maryland state standards are so closely aligned as to be virtually interchangeable.)  Unfortunately, the education school professors who have praised the Maryland content standards so fulsomely have done so primarily because Maryland has incorporated all of the education schools’ most trendy ideas into its standards.  These trendy ideas are pedagogical nonsense which, when put into practice, invariably drag down the level of achievement of all our students.

Maryland has taken what should be the backbone of K-8 mathematics, i.e., addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions, and squeezed all of those essential topics into one corner of the curriculum under the bureaucratic title “Number Sense and Computation.”  This constitutes only one sixth (1/6)  of the new MCPS math curriculum.  The rest of our children’s K-8 math time in the new curriculum is divided equally between Data Analysis,  Probability and Statistics, Geometry, Algebraic Thinking, and Measurement.  The curriculum is organized into these six (6) distinct units, which can be covered in any order within a given year, as none of these units build logically on any of the others within that year.  Massive lack of understanding in one’s students is not considered reason enough to stay with a topic longer (until the kids get it).  As a teacher, you are responsible for and judged on whether you have pushed through the requisite number of units by the end of the year.  Also, we (both teachers and parents) are told that this curriculum “spirals,” meaning that if a child doesn’t get it the first time, she’ll have another chance later on (next year, or the year after that, or the year after that ...).

There are so many things fundamentally wrong with this approach to teaching K-12 mathematics (especially K-8 math) that it is hard to know where to start.  It is a disastrous approach for every kind of student there is:  Gifted and Talented (bored), regular (alternately bored and lost), Learning Disabled (really lost), Special Education (dizzy from the speed), and English Language Learner (bored, lost, and discouraged).  It tries to teach everything at once instead of starting small and building one discrete, masterable skill on top of another (this is especially important for younger children and developmentally challenged students).  It is heavily weighted in favor of linguistic explanations of mathematical principles, which is developmentally inappropriate for most K-3 kids, and unnecessarily discourages our English Language Learners and our linguistic Learning Disability kids (either of whom may be very talented in math).  Worst of all, this shift in focus away from basic arithmetic skills in favor of high concept math topics in K-8 puts our kids into a Catch-22 situation from which many if not most of them will never recover.

The focus and practice needed to master basic skills is pushed aside into a single unit of the curriculum, in favor of hands-on group activities or abstruse math vocabulary lessons in one of the five (5) “non-computational” units.  These group activities and vocabulary lessons are necessitated by the fact that the kids have not yet mastered basic arithmetic skills, and so are not capable of understanding any of the “non-computational” subjects in mathematical terms.  In other words, our kids cannot possibly comprehend the advanced mathematical concepts being paraded in front of them (starting in Kindergarten) without first mastering the basics of arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions), which they don’t have time for in this new curriculum because of all the advanced math concepts which must at all costs be paraded in front of them from Kindergarten forward (with or without comprehension on their part).  Remember, then, that it is our children  who are being put in this Catch-22, from which the only escape is an attentive parent with the time and/or money for math tutoring.  This is what is so upsetting, both to parents and to teachers.  

No amount of explanation or training is going to change this.  My problem with the new MCPS math curriculum is that I understand it altogether too well.
Karen Smith, a Maryland parent, posted this message to a Maryland list for gifted and talented issues.

posted with permission

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