Friday, October 02, 2009

More About Everyday Math

The other night, I went and read pages and pages of a forum in which parents talked about their bad experiences with the Everyday Math curriculum. Remarks like this I had expected:

We got my 9 year old's progress report on Friday and it wasn't good. He scored in the 99th percentile in math all the years in Catholic school, but is slipping in public. He's great with multiplication, division, measurement, graphs, etc., but neither he nor I are any good at "strategies." He can sit there and perfectly well multiply three or four digit numbers, but he doesn't have to do that. He has to create a LATTICE with the numbers. On a diagonal. With lines. And then estimate. Why can't he multiply? Why isn't the RIGHT answer good enough? It's been fine up until this unit, they've dont the usual stuff and even more geometry than his sisters did, but now he has to strategize rather than calculate, and he has to write sentences and explanations. 2+2=4 because it does, that's why!!!!!
A lot of parents expressed frustration on behalf of their kids for having to estimate things they could easily calculate, and were perplexed by their young children being assigned problems that they, the parents, couldn't solve.

I'd be surprised if my 2nd grader came home with a math problem I couldn't solve, definitely, but it also occurs to me that there might be problems that seem quite advanced but that a 2nd grader could solve by methods that aren't the ones I would use. For instance, there might be a problem I would algebra for, but that would also succumb to other methods that I wouldn't readily think of (since I have mad algebra skillz) (relative to a 7-year-old).

I don't want to dismiss these complaints out of hand, at all. Also, when I say I would like this program, I say that from my current perspective. Perhaps as a child I valued much more highly than now the ability to get a definitive right answer to a problem using a method that worked every time. But I did find one class of anti-everyday-math posts interesting. Here's an example:
We had a bad experience with Everyday Math also in 1st/2nd grade (private school). The teacher was excellent, specially trained and very enthusiastic - can't blame her. Fortunately, she was also very cooperative. When it became apparent that D simply was not going to be able to manage even rudimentary skills such as two column addition, I intervened. I was able to convince the teacher that D could master addition and get correct answers (!) with me teaching her my old fashioned method. Teacher had no difficulty with me "homeschooling" that skill (and others). She did indicate that she would continue working with D the EDM way - I think she eventually gave up! D moved to a different school after 3rd grade. They didn't use EDM and she was a solid B - B+ math student through high school. Math concepts don't seem to come intuitively, but explanation, demonstration and practice in a more traditional format served her well.
And another, perhaps clearer:
I spent 3 years campaigning against the "new" math in our district. When my D had Mathematics in Context in 6th grade, I met with the teacher, principal, district math consultant, assistant superintendent, superintendent, and school board ... in that order ... giving them specific examples of its weaknesses and citing info from experts to support my concerns. I was blown off every single time. I finally put my kids in private school, even though it was a major financial strain. I just didn't see any other way to do it. It was just too important.

My D had multiplied & divided fractions in elementary school. In 6th grade, she was being asked to compare fractions by putting water in a tuna can & pouring it into a soup can. It was so 1st grade!

D was stuck with it for 3 years, and when I put her in private high school, she scored 99th percentile on the math portion of the entrance exam...

Its funny, I was just thinking about Everyday Math a couple of weeks ago. S1 started it in 2nd grade, when it was first brought to our district (he's a college soph now)... I thought it was ridiculous then. He was never a spectacular math student, and I couldn't understand how this was better than memorization. S2 began it the following year, when he was in kindergarten. I had to admit, that seeing the program from day 1 -- it made more sense than starting it in 2nd grade. But S2 (who turned out to be a very good math student) had no troubles with it. He zipped right through the worksheets. A few weeks ago, I was doing hw with my 1st grade nephew, when he pulled out his math assignmnet, and there was an Everyday Math worksheet.... I swear! I began to get heart palpitations at the sight of the In/Out charts! I just don't agree that any of those manipulatives help them with higher level math. You just can't beat memorizing the multiplication tables and basic rules of algebra. And I am what they'd call mathematically-challenged.


My D, now a college freshman, went to a small private K-8 school which initially had a particularly week math program. When she was in 3rd grade, they "upgraded" to Everyday Math. At the time, I was going to graduate school to be certified to teach HS math, and I didn't see much improvement by going to Everyday Math. Fortunately, she had a great math teacher in middle school, where they used something called Transition Math for pre-algebra and algebra. The biggest frustration of the math teacher was that the students didn't come to her with "math sense"...they hadn't developed a good "feel" for the right answer, weren't comfortable with simple mental math, and the like. Fortunately my daughter found she liked math and was good in it in high school, but it was the only subject where she ever got less than an A.
Now there are a lot of different kinds of posts in that thread, but there are intermittent ones like this that seem to argue something like the following: my kid struggled with Everyday Math, then when he/she got into a normal math curriculum, he/she turned out to be mathematically gifted! The Everyday Math was holding him/her back!

All of which admit a different interpretation: Everyday Math was hard but made my kid good at math.

There are plenty of counterexamples in the thread - people who said their kids had Everyday Math (and the programs that come after that and are similar) and then turned out to be behind when they joined up to regular math programs. But I do wonder if some of these parents are misinterpreting what happened with their kids.

In my best math classes I spend a lot of time confused and struggling. There is really a very direct relationship between being confused and struggling and learning a lot of actual math. (Where "a lot" is defined in psychic weight, I guess - learning a lot of what is important to me to learn about math. YMMV.) This is why I've basically decided to boycott classes that teach me how to solve certain types of problems without rigor (i.e., without insisting that I understand why the solutions work).

To be any good at math, you definitely need both things - a firm, rote knowledge of algorithms and rules, on the one hand; and on the other hand, an understanding of why things work and how to explore math. I doubt any one curriculum is best for all kids. Of course, one advantage of weirdo exploration-based math is that the parents can supplement with plain old-fashioned "this is how you multiply numbers" at home. It's much harder to supplement with fancy strange problems.


Sally said...

One of the goals of many exploration-based math programs (I would assume this one also, but I don't know) is to help get a kid ready when math gets more conceptual. One of the appropriate measures of the success of a program should be not just how well they do in this class, but how well they do later on.

When I was a kid, I hated the estimation problems, too. I can calculate the real figure - why should I estimate? Much later, perhaps especially as an adult, I see the value. It's nice to know that your purchases should total about $150, to identify when you put your numbers into the calculator and got a number 10x the magnitude you were expecting because you screwed up, etc.

Tam said...

Right. I mean, in general with curricula, the need for kids to do well at the curriculum is more of a limit on the curriculum than it is a goal. If you continually fail at something but it leaves you a genius, that's fine, except for the fact that people can't tolerate continual failure.