Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Everyday Math: Yea or Nay?

By Pam Kenney

Over the last few years, many school districts across Maine have adopted Everyday Mathematics as the math curriculum for their kindergarten through sixth grade students. The program's development by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project began more than 20 years ago, and the first textbooks were published in 1998. Since then it has been implemented, then rejected, in school systems across the country, often because children taught using Everyday Mathematics consistently fail to meet state math standards. Frequently called "fuzzy math", it eschews rote learning and relies on spiraling, a method that introduces children to a concept but quickly moves on to another concept before mastery is achieved. Concepts are re-introduced throughout the school year with the hope that, through repetition, the kids will learn them. Unfortunately, spiraling doesn't work very well. Top math students are bored, average learners are frustrated because, just when they are starting to "get it", another topic is introduced, and children who are struggling in math are overwhelmed and give up in despair.

The seeds of Everyday Mathematics and other programs like it started to sprout more than 50 years ago with the launch of Sputnik I by the Soviet Union and the subsequent realization by U.S. educators that our students needed more difficult math and science courses to help the country excel globally. One result of that decision was that the rote-learning focus of math instruction at the time was replaced by one that emphasized the "whys" of math. "Carrying" and "borrowing", for example, were replaced by lessons on re-grouping and learning about ones, tens, and hundreds. That shift was needed and changed how math was taught for years. The problem now is that we've made the "hows" and "whys" of math so important that we've relegated concept mastery and computing skills to secondary, undervalued positions in some math curricula. Everyday Mathematics is a prime example of the new philosophy, and its inherent spiraling and neglect of mastery have had a negative effect on learning. I think many Maine schools jumped on the Everyday Mathematics band wagon without researching its many drawbacks thoroughly enough; and math programs are so expensive, it will be a long time before these schools can afford to replace it.


Becky Ranks said...

Having used the Investigations math program for the last five years of my classroom teaching experience, I totally get your argument about Everyday Math and programs like it. Personally I think that it's not so much the programs as it is the lack of real professional development for teachers who are teaching using these methods. Teachers are often given a new program and told to teach with it without giving the support needed for them to adopt the program. In my experience I often saw teachers supplementing the math program with their own materials and ideas so that the math curriculum became a hodgepodge of instructional techniques and philosophies. If math programs would be adopted for the right reasons and teachers were given the professional development needed to make it successful,our students would be better served.

mrichme said...

We've been using EDM for a number of years and we've seen our test scores go up but about 3 years ago we recognized that computational skills were lacking. After some investigating we decided to add Mastering Math Facts to supplement EDM.

Math program is a lot like reading programs, no one "canned" product can do everything well. A successful program is one that blends products together.

Pam Kenney said...

I agree that teachers need more comprehensive training and support when a new program is introduced. Coupled with a willingness by teachers to embrace a different way of teaching from what they're used to, enhanced preparation would certainly mitigate some of the missteps that are common when a new curriculum is adopted.

Pam Kenney said...

mrichme, your comment really rattled my cage! You betcha - to be successful in the classroom, teachers have to pull out anything and everything in their bag of tricks to meet the needs of their students. I applaud your school for using a fact mastery program to supplement EDM when it was clear your kids needed a boost in that area.

I'm reminded of the early 90s when the whole language movement reigned supreme across the U.S. In many schools basal readers were discarded, and language, phonics, and spelling instruction were discontinued. With almost no preparation, teachers were expected to teach children how to read using trade books alone. Moreover, they had to teach reading, language, and spelling skills within the context of those books. Teachers floundered, kids struggled, parents fumed, and test scores went down. Why in the world do school systems do that? Wouldn't you think it would be obvious to the "experts" who make such decisions that, because children learn in so many different ways, whatever resources a teacher can find that can be used to help a child read should be? When I was in the classroom, I loved whole language, but I taught phonics, decoding skills, and spelling rules, too. You're right; it's the blending of programs that works best.

Thanks for the comment. Now, if you want to talk about the 70s when all the classroom walls came down, we can do that, too!

RSL said...

My child is not doing well with EDM which is a new program this year for our elementary school in California.

She was an excellent math student and loving her class last year. Now she's behind, not feeling good about the learning process and confused by the EDM jargon.

Our teachers are not adequately prepared nor skilled yet in the art of teaching the EDM way which is idiosyncratic, full of jargon and very artificially "constructed" around methods versus mastery. I find it MORE tedious not less in giving students math skills.

As a parent, it's alarming and it's discouraging to suddenly change the curriculum. What was wrong with what we had before? How is it that we're forced into adopting new math programs without consideration for how teachers will teach it and how students/families will learn it.

Maybe it will work after years of practice but it's painful.

At the end of the day, I want an education that embraces my child's strengths and weaknesses in an individual plan by giving teachers more flexibility, not less to teach what they know works with their students.

I applaud the flexibility of schools that recognize the "one size doesn't fit all" philosophy of teaching. Maine seems to be ahead of the curve again in dealing with this. I still remain skeptical about EDM though.

Pam Kenney said...

You raise a good point. There is a tendency in American education to continually look for better ways to teach, and that's a good thing as long as we don't go overboard. For example, in EDM students are taught at least three ways to multiply two digits by two digits. Yes, I want kids to understand the difference between multiplying tens by ones and tens by tens, but if they're required to learn too many different methods, even the brightest ones get confused.

The NCTM, a supporter of EDM, is now backing off its endorsement, so perhaps we'll see it slowly disappear from schools.

Dave said...

I guess I'm considered a non-educator in some circles. I'm a mere adjunct Instructor at a local college. So I'm not devoid of the learning process.

That said, I despise Everyday Math. Not because I don't think there is some merit to it, but because my school has been quite negligent in educating parents about he curriculum.

It's just thorwn out there, and no attempts to educate parents about it are made. The local PTO is just used for its fund raising abilities and nothing else.

I'll stop here.

I'm sick of experimental curriculum being tossed into the fray. It may increase test scores, but I am very worried about the effects of this ill conceived curriculum when students learn more advanced mathematic concepts.

Pam Kenney said...

Dave, your final point reminded me of the difficulty students who have been taught the EDM curriculum in elementary school are experiencing when they enter middle school. Middle school math teachers, often not familiar with EDM methods, expect their students to divide, for example, the "old fashioned" way. The kids, comfortable with the "partial products" method, then have to learn how to divide the way their parents have been doing it for years. Good grief!

S.King said...


I am curious to know what your background is in Mathematics education and what you are basing your criticisms of Everyday Math on. Are you suggesting a return to the focus on arithmetic and computation - memorization of procedures that make kids believe math is just magic? I do not think any extreme approach is wise. However, the "back to the basics mathematically correct" movement will leave the vast majority of our students non-mathematical thinkers and math-haters as so many were in the past. The math instruction of traditional math education (like my children had and I had in high school and college) was horrendous - just memorize the procedures, memorize the steps - and develop NO conceptual understanding at all. Got me A's in math - and not much else.

Pam Kenney said...

I'm a former elementary school principal and teacher and now operate an educational services business in Harpswell, ME. All of the children I tutor in math are struggling with EDM.

When I was a principal,I not only wrote the school's curriculum, I chose the textbooks to support it. I also taught all the accelerated math classes in the school.

I believe if you re-read the original post, you will discover that "a return to the focus on arithmetic and computation-memorization of procedures that make kids believe math is just magic"is the last thing I'm advocating. My point is that during the last 25 years, as the focus of math instruction shifted (as it should have) from rote learning to unlocking the math concepts behind the computation, we have devoted so much textbook space to teaching children why 7*6=42 that we've forgotten to have them learn the fact.

Mary said...

Pan Keenny said, "I'm reminded of the early 90s when the whole language movement reigned supreme across the U.S.ending of programs that works best."
Wasn't it in the mid 90's that Maine lead in the nation in reading? Didn't we place in the top 4 positions varying by grade level quite consistently? Didn't we have all kinds of different methods going on across the state? I can remember reading an article that came out of the UofMaine that concluded that when teachers are allowed to do what they well, students benefit. Perhaps best practice is not the same for every professional. Perhaps teachers teach best when allowed to use their natural talents just as students learn best when they are allowed to lead with their natural talents. Have scores actually been compared to earlier methods? I haven't seen such things published. Instead it seems we change the testing method so comparisons are difficult. I come from another profession and am amazed that we rarely look back to learn from successful methods of the past. We seem to drop them rather than improving. A lot of band wagons but is the band playing any better?

Pam Kenney said...

I didn't live in Maine in the 90s, and it's certainly possible that its reading test scores were particularly high then when compared to those of other states. If that's the case, my assumption is that it was a period when teachers were actively encouraged to use any method at their disposal to teach their students. To reiterate, the common practice in education of discrediting successful teaching methods as soon as "research" points to a new and better way is not best practice and is detrimental to learning.

Mary said...

Pam, I missed this comment from you, "The NCTM, a supporter of EDM, is now backing off its endorsement, so perhaps we'll see it slowly disappear from schools.", nor did I realize that NCTM has changed its point of view.
I work with Gifted kids. They come out of classrooms that use Investigations. As a second grade teacher I loved Investigations. It was very Math Their Way except the district bought all the stuff I used to have to beg, borrow steal or make (in that order LOL) Sadly, I don't think it grows up as fast as children do. Fifth graders would enter advanced math settings not knowing basic math language like product or difference. I had one who could multiply complex problems in his head. He could not subtract with regrouping. I asked him about that and this is what he told me. (Classmates clapped btw.) "Oh, they probably taught that but I was always so bored, I probably didn't listen." I had to go for a little laugh in the hall before I could continue. My students yearn for the "real way" (like adults or mathematicians use). The exploration is fabulous but they are never taught efficient ways... they never get to feel in control. I would not want to explain in three different ways how my car engine runs before I could turn it on...every time. They want to explore different bases... not three ways to do the same thing.

Pam Kenney said...

Mary, have you read the recently-released report from the NAGC, "State of the States in Gifted Education"? Two of my students are gifted, and their parents are having a hard time getting them the services they need in my district. I've just started the report and am discouraged already by the lack of funding for gifted education across the U.S. I think I feel another post beginning to form ;-)

Pat said...

I am a parent of a 4th grader using Investigations and an 8th grader using Connected Math. Three years ago I started seeing the gaps in these programs. I began doing some research on elementary math programs in the U.S. About a month ago I got involved with the US Coalition for World Class Math. The coalition believes there must be a mixture of mastering basic skills and understanding how and why math works. Once students master arithmetic alternative methods make more sense and are less confusing to students. I invite everyone to visit our web site. The Maine Chapter of the US Coalition for World Class Math is:
Pat Murray

Pam Kenney said...

Thank you, Pat, for alerting me to the US Coalition for World Class Math. I read its Design Principles this afternoon on its Maine chapter's website and am thrilled that there is a national group that understands and promotes how math should be taught in schools. I have signed up to receive emails from the coalition and am working now on another blog post to publicize it. I would love to get more involved in the effort to improve our schools' math instruction, and I hope your site is a good place to start.

Anonymous said...

I learned long ago, never to put my kids in a school using Everyday Math. I now have a senior in high school who will be going off to college next year fully prepared for college level mathematics. His chosen degree requires higher level mathematics and I'm so glad I made sure we chose schools that used a "traditional" Math program. While math has always been his strong subject, I'm afraid he wouldn't have acquired the skills he needs had we chosen the Everyday Math path.
I would suggest to other parents to look at non-public schools. YOu can try to get your school to adopt another program, but you can also go and bang your head on a brick wall too while you're at it.
The progressive educators bring in programs/curriculum that leaves our kids unprepared in the core academic subjects. Until they own up to the mess they created, I'm afraid we'll see more kids graduate without basic skills. I'm just happy I knew when my son started kindergarten years ago, avoid this disaster!

LynnG said...

Beware of claims of success from school districts using EDM. The public schools in my CT town adopted EDM about 6 years ago. We generally score very well on the State tests, which are closely aligned with EDM.

Even so, the only way we can get top scores on a state test aligned with the math program we have is to supplement heavily. It is not a handful of teachers that don't get the program, its District policy to supplement EDM extensively.

EDM is used about 50% to 60% of the time. Supplemental materials based purely on the State tests (all multiple choice CMT-style questions) are drilled about 40 to 50% of the time. That's the dirty secret of EDM's "success" story in our town.

If you are serious about improving your math education, I suggest you look closely at Singapore Math. I use it at home with all my children after school. They are at least 1 grade level ahead of their classmates forced to use EDM with supplementation. They understand math and mathematical concepts; the Singapore Math program is amazing.

I have no connection to SM, other than I've used it and recommend it.

Pam Kenney said...

In Maine there are not many families that can afford private school. Many are turning to tutors as a last resort because not only are their children moving from grade to grade with weak math skills, but the home-school partnership has broken down. I've never seen parents as frustrated as they are today by the inability or unwillingness of schools to explain EDM procedures to them. They want to help their children succeed but most have no experience with lattice multiplication or partial quotients, for example. Removing parents from the learning loop is not good for the schools or the children.

Pam Kenney said...

I must say I'm surprised, Lynn, that the need for such extensive supplementation of EDM doesn't cause some CT administrators to re-evaluate its effectiveness. I know a lot of homeschoolers swear by Singapore Math, yet it's largely absent from public schools. Is that because it isn't really suitable for large-class instruction? Is it the power of the huge textbook companies? My guess is that the schools would argue that curricula like Singapore spend too much time on drill and not enough on concept development. I don't think that's true, though. Why, then, don't we see Singapore Math in public schools?

Barry Garelick said...

The math instruction of traditional math education (like my children had and I had in high school and college) was horrendous - just memorize the procedures, memorize the steps - and develop NO conceptual understanding at all.

I had math in the 50's and 60's, as did many people I know who have wound up in the sciences or math fields. Yes, they actually provided instruction on how to perform operations. But, in reviewing the math books I had back then (I bought them over the internet), there were explanations of what was happening. Ask teachers and students of EDM to explain why the alternative algorithms they are given actually work. Also, ask them to solve problems that you were able to do when you were their age.

Take a look at the Singapore math books which you can buy online. You'll find that there are very good explanations of what is happening conceptually. Ultimately, however, the important thing is for students to be able to reach procedural fluency.

Yes, students should be given challenging problems to enable them to apply what they have learned to new situations. But such problems must be scaffolded properly. Giving students problems for which they have not had the instruction for how to solve them does NOT develop any habit of mind for critical thinking.

Anonymous said...

As a parent, I have real concerns with the lack of practice that the EDM curriculum gives students. Since they introduce so many different methods, it seems that the time spent on independent practicing of each method should be increased. Instead, minimal time is spent practicing what is taught. I found this quote from a math teacher on another blog and feel that it is quite accurate – “I'm a parent and a math teacher who has done considerably more than "five minutes of Google research." It seems to me that people generally trust their districts to choose quality math programs, and districts trust their state officials to write quality standards and recommend quality programs. Unfortunately for many parents and students, it is not until the child struggles on college math placement tests that they realize there is a problem and that their trust may have been misplaced.”

Beth Schultz