“New Math”: A Guide Through the Maze

“New” math also goes by the names, Chicago Math, Investigations Math, and TERC Math. They are largely similar in their focus and intent and rely on one of two textbook series, TERC or Everyday Mathematics.
    The latter is the product of a project by a group of mathematicians, researchers, and educators to raise the overall level of proficiency of math students in the U.S. by significantly altering the math curriculum traditionally taught in elementary school. The project was begun in 1983 at the University of Chicago as a direct result of a consensus of educators and policy makers that the U.S. was “failing to provide its students with an adequate mathematical education.”  The project concluded, among other things, that by rooting the foundations of mathematical learning in real-life experience, students will be engaged in the learning process and therefore will learn best. That is essentially the core component of “New” math: Everything being taught has a direct real-world application. This sounds great in principle, but the reality is that it doesn’t work for everyone, either.

How is “New” math different?
   The single, largest fundamental difference between the two schools of thought is how students approach computation. Many critics of “New” math complain that students never really learn their math facts. Ask most adults what 7 x 9 is, and without a moment’s hesitation they will respond: 63. How do we know this seemingly odd piece of information? Practice and repetition. No one actually enjoys memorizing math facts; it was just something you had to do. Most students who are taught “New” math still practice their math facts, but it is relatively de-emphasized compared to traditional math instruction, and many do not receive the rote drilling that is required for it to become automatic. Instead, “New” math students frequently learn their math facts through a series of short cuts, games, and estimation strategies. For instance, a student may remember that 7 x 8 = 56 by remembering the sequence of numbers 5, 6, 7, 8.
   “New” math students also use estimation — a tremendously useful math skill. One “New” math method of estimation is “Landmark” numbers. Let’s say a student can’t recall what 7 x 9 is. They will certainly know what 7 x 10 is and use that as a landmark number to solve 7 x 9 using this thought process: If 7 x 10 is 70, 7 x 9 is one less 7, so 70-9 will equal 7 x 9, which is 63. You will also see this applied to larger numbers. For instance, some “New” math students do not learn the basic algorithms for solving a multi-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division problem. They don’t borrow and carry or insert a zero to hold the place of a number. If you give a “New” math student the problem 98 x 15, more often than not, they will approach the problem like this: 98 x 15 is two 15s less than 100. 100 x 15 is 1500. 2 x 15 is 30, so 1500-30 = 98 x 15, which is 1470. This is a great method for approaching a lot of math problems, and it teaches students “number sense” in a way that the traditional algorithm does not. But critics argue that sometimes it’s a lot easier to just line the numbers up and solve.
   In general, students learn a variety of different methods for solving multi-digit computation problems, but rarely learn the traditional algorithms that most parents are familiar with. “New” math teaches students to focus on understanding why a particular method works rather than blindly trusting in a memorized process. “New” math also advocates calculator usage when a computation problem becomes unnecessarily cumbersome. These are all potentially very good approaches for the development of a mathematic mind, but it is important to acknowledge that there are some shortcomings.

“New” math and testing
   There is a problem when some students are being taught one way and then being tested in another. Furthermore, private school admissions tests, such as the ISEE and the SSAT, do not allow students to use calculators, yet require fast and fluent computation of complicated math problems. Students who come from a “New” math program often perform poorly on the math sections of these tests despite having a strong conceptual understanding of mathematics, because of time constraints and computation errors.
   We are also going through a transitional period with the advent of a new curriculum where the vast majority of parents are not equipped to help students in a way that is consistent with what is being taught in the classroom.

How can a parent help?
   Like any curriculum, “New” math builds upon itself, so trying to help your child with what they are learning in 5th grade may be a little like trying to finish writing a novel that someone else started. You will need to go back and understand previous lessons to effectively communicate with your child. Better yet, start early with “New” math, when your child is still in kindergarten or first grade, and take time to understand how they are being taught. This doesn’t mean that you have to do every lesson that they learn, but a quick glance at homework and quizzes can make a big difference in the long run. And when you see something that looks utterly unfamiliar, take the time to figure out how and why your child is being taught that way. The Everyday Mathematics and TERC books are very intuitive, and you might even learn something about math that you had previously taken for granted.
   Most educators recognize that there are pros and cons to both curricula, but what is best for an individual student varies depending on that student’s needs and learning style. A parent’s best resource is their child’s teacher. If you still feel the need to supplement your child’s “New” math education with traditional math instruction, then it is highly advisable to do so with a professional tutor who will be able to effectively incorporate new methodology into your child’s existing understanding of mathematics.

JEFF SHARPE is the executive director of Vertex Academic Services in New York City. www.vertexacademic.com; (212) 573-0980