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In defense of traditional math: What is reform math, anyway?

Note from Laurie Rogers:

When you explain the flaws of reform math and excessive constructivism to parents, they tend to see it right away. When you explain the flaws of reform math to proponents of reform, they tend to dismiss all concerns with some variation of, "You just don't get it."

This page is dedicated to informing parents and other community members about what reform math and constructivism are. If you're wondering about America's alarming and precipitous drop in math skills, if you're struggling to find someone you can hire who has basic math skills, or if you are wondering why your child is getting straight As in honors math but can't consistently subtract one number from another or divide a two-digit number by a one-digit number --- this page is for you.

I recommend reading the online comments to these articles. Pro-reform-math arguments are incredibly enlightening. Staring at about 30 years of abject failure of reform math and excessive constructivism, staring at 30 years of students whose capabilities in math have hit nearly rock bottom, staring at frustrated parents and worried employers -- many of these people still love reform. They have no data on their side, no scientifically conducted research, and no solid students outcomes -- but they still love reform.

Sadly, the reformers have control, they have taxpayer dollars, they have most of the media, and they usually win. Not to depress you, but much of the country is getting a new slate of reform math along with the federally pushed (very-close-to-being-federally-mandated) Common Core initiatives.

Please feel free to ask questions. If you would like me to cover something in particular, please let me know at  . Those who cannot see the problem cannot repair the problem. Reformers often refuse to see it (and so will not repair it), but parents and community members can see it if they are shown, and they can take steps to repair it on their own.

In defense of long division: Pro-reform professor capably shows why reform doesn't work

In defense of vertical multiplication: Reform methods stumble over decimals

The Number Line (for Negatives):
In defense of the number line: Reform methods for teaching negatives fail on decimals, fractions ... and negatives

In defense of proper process: Reform methods lead to lost information and incorrect answers

Constructivism and group work:
In defense of direct instruction: Constant constructivism, group work and arrogant attitude are abusive to children

Common Core leading districts to adopt unproved math programs and failed approaches

Professional development for teachers:
Professional development in math should focus on math, not on pedagogy or materials

Curricular Materials:
Textbooks and placement tests for Saxon Math and Singapore Math

What does a quality math textbook look like?


George DeMarse said...

This article is silly.

"Reform" math came about because "traditional math failed" about 45% of the students in high school. To continue on the "traditional math" bandwagon is nuttier than trying "reform" measures that may work better. They can't be any worse in any case.

George DeMarse
The Sage of Wake Forest

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To George DeMarse:

Your statistical support for your claims regarding the efficacy of reform math and constructivism is ... what?

Your argument - "they can't be any worse" - is known as an argumentation fallacy, i.e. It isn't true because it can't be true. This is neither logical, nor a supported argument.

If you have solid student data - collected and compiled in a scientific and replicable manner - to support reform math and reform approaches to instruction as being as good or better than traditional algorithms and direct instruction, I would like to see that.

George DeMarse said...

My evidence is an average traditional high school math class or college algebra math class.

Read any of a dozen or more studies done in the last 5 years. Washington Post May 4, 2013"Montgomery County Students Failing Math," Las Vegas Sun "High Schoolers Struggling in Math" Oct. 23 2011, The Math Projects Journal "Teaching Students with Poor Math Skills: A High Failure Rate," Jun 23, 2012, "College Algebra: A Course in Crisis," U.S. Military Academy, May 5, 2003, "Follow the F Grades, Inside Higher Ed," June 1, 2011.

Need any more? Your "argumentation fallacy" crap doesn't mean a thing to me. I took logic up through a graduate course in symbolic logic. In fact, I was a philosophy major.

George DeMarse

George DeNarse

Laurie H. Rogers said...

George DeMarse:

Those newspaper articles support what I've said about the last 30 years of failure of reform math. They don't support what you said.

I was asking you for research on reform math and constructivism -- scientifically conducted, replicable research - that shows reform math and excessive constructivism resulting in better academic outcomes.

Do you have that? Newspaper articles are not research.

Anonymous said...


They've attempted "new math" or "reinventing math" or "hands on" math and thirty other approaches to high school math in the last 30 years with about the same failure rate.

It's worth a try--but does not seem to work very well. When alternatives to traditional math have worked, the traditionalists yell "watered down stuff."

When are you and other traditionalists finally going to give up on traditional math instruction that produces the same failing results for most students in the last 30 years?

I could cite a dozen papers but evidence for you doesn't seem to sink in, since you'd require "more evidence" ad infinitim.

George DeMarase

Laurie H. Rogers said...

George, please do cite the dozen papers you say prove that reform math and excessive constructivism produce better academic results for the students.

How do you know I wouldn't accept their conclusions if you won't ever provide them to me?

These should be scientifically conducted, replicable studies -- not just anecdotes, opinion pieces or news articles that quote someone's opinion or make unsupported claims.

Please also show where direct instruction and standard algorithms have failed to produce well-educated students "over the last 30 years." This country has had very little of either in its public schools over the last 30 years. Therefore, the failure you see all around you is largely, perhaps fully, due to reform math and excessive constructivism.

But if you have evidence showing otherwise, let's have it.

Again, please be sure this evidence is properly conducted research.

Norbert Leute said...

What we should be giving is teachers a bag of tools for math. There are different ways to do math. I tried using different methods to help students learn a math concepts. We need to realize student process math concepts differently and for some it takes time.

Instead of trying to complicate things keep it simple. We should be asking way are we teaching this to these kids at this time. There are things we teach to our elementary students that could be taught later. The elementary years should be about forming a strong foundation in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, basic algebra and geometry.

When did direct instruction become and option; direct instruction is hands on teaching. If a teacher isn't doing this than they aren't teaching. Also, where we are failing in math is students can't identify their mistakes. This is the biggest flaw in the state testing.

How many of us have made basic mistakes in math? I use to have students correct their math problems they miss. They had to write what they did wrong. I always gave full credit if they told me what they did wrong and corrected the problem correctly.

Why are we pushing math classes on students when most don't understand money transactions or how to invest wisely. This where we should put our focus not on how to teach math.

Carlee Bongiorno said...

Why do we keep talking about 30 years of failure in reform math? I am a math coach. I'm 36 and was NOT taught math the way we teach it now. What we are doing now is NOTHING like 30 years ago. It was out there but not being implemented which is why there is failure.