**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