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Why American Kids Can’t Do Math

Updated on December 3, 2012

The Methodically Manufactured Math Mess

Let’s conduct a thought experiment. It may sound goofy but it is deadly serious. We want to design a math curriculum that will keep children from learning math.

Suppose you’ve occupied a foreign country. You hope to make sure the children never learn to do math, not in any serious way. But you need the parents to think their kids are learning math; you need the children to think they’re learning math; you need everyone to believe in the mirage. But nobody’s learning math.

This is not an easy deception to pull off. People watching from the sidelines should never suppose there is anything artificial about classroom activities. All the normal appearances of successful education must somehow be in play.

Okay, let’s brainstorm this. What features would this hypothetical curriculum have?

Research-Based Failure

1) First, you might forbid mastery. Merely say that old-fashioned drill and kill is tedious and counter-productive. Kids hate it, so why waste valuable classroom time on a goal that is not worth achieving? Always refer to mastery in condescending tones.

2) You could announce a rule against standard algorithms (the way most Americans learned to do division, etc.). Again, these ways are old-fashioned and boring. You stress that other countries use different methods. We wouldn’t be multicultural if we didn’t try these other approaches, which just happen to be more intricate and difficult to learn. But that will stretch the children’s minds, certainly a good thing.

3) You would ridicule the idea of memorizing the multiplication tables or anything else. In fact, memorization is always bad, you insist. It’s an obsolete concept in the age of the computer and the internet. A ban on memorization fits nicely with not mastering any particular skills.

4) As much as possible, you tell students they must figure out everything for themselves. This sounds creative and resourceful. Kids are like Minute Men, always ready to jump into a new battle and fight it in a new way. In practical terms, kids never assemble a set of tools. They’re always starting over, inventing math as if for the first time.

5) Meanwhile, the class could spiral from topic to topic. The focus would shift to something new every few days. The point is to keep the class light and fun (and shallow).

6) Of course, it’s always stressed that finding right answers is not important because kids have calculators. Process is important; the journey is celebrated. Actually arriving at a destination is regarded as trivial.

7) Kids might always work in groups of four, five or six. So the actual smallness of what each kid knows is blurred. One smart kid might be carrying the whole group. Three of the kids might never learn anything but they get a B+ because the group gets a B+. Cooperation is regarded as an important skill in itself, more than the ability to do math.

Wait, There's Much More...

8) Meanwhile, kids should be constantly praised. Their self-esteem is continually reinforced. They should feel they must be doing something right even if they learn little. If somebody is whispering in your ear how wonderful you are, you probably won’t want to rock the boat by suggesting that perhaps you actually don’t understand math.

9) Teachers might spend a lot of energy discussing and inventorying what kids knew before (i.e. their prior knowledge). What did they learn in past years? This concern uses up class time and makes the kids wallow in the past where, after all, they feel more secure. Conversely, they feel less confident about venturing into the unknown, which used to be the whole point.

10) Kids can be encouraged to engage in elaborate projects, such as Bridge Engineering in Developing Countries. The projects can result in a scrapbook or presentation. Students find pictures and charts on the internet to display what they might know. Parents will be impressed, and kept at a distance. Again, powerpoint skills are important in themselves, more than actually doing any math.

11) Almost always, it helps to denigrate tests, grades, review, standards, homework, finding the one correct answer, or any other sort of concern for precision or actually learning math.

12) Another ingenious idea is word problems, as these slow down kids who are naturally good at math. Most of these kids will be slow readers, as aren’t they all. So you make them wade through a lot of verbal density. They are chopped down to size very quickly.

This Stuff Takes A Toll

No memorization, no mastery, no practical algorithms, no concentration on any one skill, no tests to show what kids know, no independent work...I think everyone would agree that children taking this course would not learn much math. You can go back over the features, and feel certain each one will strip away 10-20% of the traditional gains. Pretty quickly you’re down to a pittance.

What, you might wonder, is the point of this silly thought experiment? Why would anyone waste time on such a counterintuitive course?

Here’s what I can promise you: someone did.

It’s matter of record that dozens of the country’s brightest minds labored for years, circa 1980, and created a curriculum with virtually all of the above-mentioned features. In fact, the professors liked it so much they created 12 separate versions of the curriculum, for example, Everyday Mathematics, Mathland, Connected Math, and TERC.

All of them collectively were designated Reform Math. A more accurate name, as you see, is Deform Math. This pedagogical perversity has been used on millions of students, with the dismal results you would expect.

Without their calculators, many children can’t multiply 7 x 8.

One of the oddest parts of the story is that the National Science Foundation bankrolled the academic groups creating Reform Math. Almost $100,000,000 was spent by this prestigious-sounding government agency. Its name would more properly be the National Anti-Science Foundation, as Reform Math has done a great deal to undercut STEM skills.

All the brains working on this projects were members of the National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM). It’s difficult to make a case that these professors actually intended to help math. Math scores are down. Reform Math curricula are universally criticized. (For comments by angry parents, see “Everyday Math--Innumeracy By Design.”)

Here’s another part of the tragedy. Recently, we hear a great deal of fanfare abut Common Core Curriculum, as though something new and better is coming along. But in most cases, CCC is simply going to lock Reform Math in place, a dreadful development.

Soon The Brain Can't Keep Up With The Nonsense...



The Big Picture: Retardation

CODA: You may be thinking that Reform Math is the dumbest thing in history. Perhaps not. Look-say (also known as Whole Word) was a method used to teach reading that virtually guaranteed children wouldn’t learn to read. These two programs operated in tandem to destroy the 3 R's. If only one of them existed, you might think it had to be some sort of grotesque accident. That there is both a math retardation program and a reading retardation program tells us that somebody was trying to eradicate both of them. (For more on reading crisis, see YouTube video “The Biggest Crime in American History.”)

The Assault on Math

For related article, see "36: The Assault On Math" on

Also, there are several related articles on hubpages, e.g., " Price's Easy Arithmetic For First Graders," which explains how to do it right.



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    • Christine Miranda profile image

      Christine Miranda 5 years ago from My office.

      This is so sad and so true. I have been volunteering in my children's classes for the past 10 years. Every year or two there is a new program to learn math or spelling or reading.

      At an open house a few years back a fresh out of college teacher was explaining why the kids needed to use math blocks to learn multiplication and went through a fifteen minute example for one problem. When I raised my hand and asked her why they couldn't just memorize the facts like we did, she looked at me with a baffled look and said "Oh, I guess they can do that too." Seriously?

      This past year the teacher was teaching 5-10 second songs to remember 8x7 and other 'difficult' facts. Then they couldn't understand why the kids couldn't answer that many problems in a timed minute. Great hub, well written. Voted up & more.