Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The sad legacy of Everyday Math

Twice this past week I saw shocking examples of the cumulative effects of Everyday Math. Last Thursday I visited a nearby private school with sliding scale tuition and a diversity of students. For years the school had used Everyday Math, but recently, with the encouragement of a friend and colleague of mine who advises schools on math curricula, they’d begun to use Singapore Math. They’re phasing it in gradually, however, and currently don’t introduce it until 4th grade. For the first few grades, like nearly every other school in Philadelphia, they use Everyday Math.

So the 4th graders I observed had only been using Singapore Math since September. Their teacher was walking them through a topic in the 3rd grade Singapore Math curriculum: how to multiply and reduce fractions. And no one in the class who tried to answer the teacher’s questions got a single answer right. They didn’t know how to find ¼ of a 20, and they didn’t know how to reduce 5/20.

The next day I spent my first session of the school year with a group of children of French African immigrant parents who had enrolled them in an after school enrichment program I’m involved with. They were four Everyday Math-educated 5th graders, and I was exploring their mastery of addition and subtraction. Addition went fine: they know how to stack numbers and carry from one digit to the next. Subtraction was another story.

Heartened by their success adding two three-digit numbers, I asked them how to do 1000 - 91. All but one of the five students were stumped. Most got the same number: 1011. Two things had stumped them: 0 - 1, which they thought was 1, and how to borrow across more than one digit. So I gave them an easier problem, 100-71--and they were equally stumped, again getting answers that were larger than the number they were subtracting from. So I began the tricky process of teaching them how to borrow across more than one digit.

The great thing is that they were hooked. When I asked them whether their answers should be bigger or smaller than the number they were subtracting from, they all answered “smaller.” When I then asked them whether their answers were, in fact, smaller, they looked down at their sheets, and then up at me, and I had their undivided attention. These are good kids: they want to learn. And they like math.

You can’t blame the mathematical deficiencies of these 4th and 5th graders on their parents: both the private school and the after school program select for parents who care about education. You can’t blame it on the kids: my kids, who clearly wanted to learn, and had been admitted in part based on their behavior; in the private school classroom I saw, they were very well behaved. You can’t blame it on class size: the classes I observed contained between 7 and 12 students. You can’t blame it on the teachers: the teachers I saw seemed well above average in their ability to engage their students in the material at hand.

No, I’m afraid there’s only one thing we can blame here, much as the developers of the Everyday Math monolith would like to claim otherwise.


Deirdre Mundy said...

My daughter is in 3rd grade using Saxon math. She got the right answer working it out in her head. (She explained her thought process--she essentially subrtracted 9 less than 1000-100 to get the answer, which is how Saxon teaches them to group things for fast mental math.)

Anyway---it shouldn't even be a 'borrowing across columns' issue then, at least if my daughter is a fair guide....

It makes me wonder WHAT Everyday Math is teaching them, since, as far as I can remember, Saxon hasn't even gotten to problems that large.....

(Though I've found Saxon's progression from 'dollars, dimes, and pennies' to 'hundreds, tens, and ones' is really helpful. Kids care A LOT about adding and subtracting money!)

David Foster said...

"The great thing is that they were hooked"

Should Everyday Math get credit for hooking them, or were they the kind of kids who would have also been hooked with a more traditional approach?

Katharine Beals said...

What hooked them was realizing their answers were wrong and wanting to know how to get the right answers.

Anonymous said...

One good thing about Singapore math is that after every chapter there is a review. My son (doing 4A) had a problem like 900-236 on a review and he did not remember how to do this so instead he calculated 899 - 236 and then added then 1 back on. That might sound like and "invented algorithm", which I guess it is, but I feel that the general number sense which Singapore helps to instill is what allowed him to get the right answer even without remembering the correct technique. I congratulated him on figuring out a way to do it, and then we reviewed how to borrow across zeroes.

Anonymous said...

I thought of a neat trick I taught my adult basic math group this fall for borrowing across zeros -
We need to borrow to make the last zero a ten - so look at the rest of the number - 100 - think of it as 100, borrow 1 from it, cross out the 100 and write 99. in the place values, subtract 10-1=9, then 9-9=0, then 9-0=9 so the answer is 909.

It's a lot neater on the board than it is written out like this, but I had never thought of it this way before and many of them were struggling with this topic. This little trick seemed to make sense to them and helped out.

I usually did problems both ways on the board so as not to confuse anyone who preferred one method to the other.