NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Constructivist" Math: Why Johnny Can't Add

April 27, 2000

It has been known by a number of names: new math, fuzzy math, constructivist math -- even whole math, until the "whole language" approach to teaching reading fell into disrepute and whole math advocates dropped the "whole." Whatever it's called, the decade-old experiment in math teaching has parents seeing red.

  • The procedure de-emphasizes correct answers, relies on "flexibility" and values "reasonable" answers.
  • Textbooks are rejected in favor of exercises using blocks, beans and other materials.
  • One popular program, MathLand, suggests students count a million grains of birdseed to get a feeling for the size of a million.
  • Another, Everyday Mathematics, teaches children an ancient Egyptian method of multiplication and suggests that fourth graders measure angles with bent straws rather than protractors.

The movement has prompted professional mathematicians to charge that a generation of school children have no idea how to add, subtract, multiply or divide.

Parents say their children are coming home from school confused and dispirited after being subjected to teaching strategies that are primitive, cumbersome and indirect. Used by inexperienced teachers who are themselves weak in math, parents say, the curriculum turns murky. And tutoring services say they are seeing an epidemic of children coming to them for basic math instruction.

Source: Anemona Hartocollis, "The New, Flexible Math Meets Parental Rebellion," New York Times, April 27, 2000.


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