I feel for the teachers and administrators who must tolerate hyper-competitive parents in the hyper-competitive Bay Area. Having lived here for more than 10 years, I have had my fair share of debates over curriculum, private vs. public school and the finer points of having my preschooler learn Spanish vs. Mandarin. Heck, I even helped start a school so that my children would experience the curriculum as I and other parents wanted it.
Now I find myself entrenched in this math war. A friend and parent at our school recently expressed reservations to me over our math curriculum, Everyday Math. It is a math curriculum started by the University of Chicago that teaches concepts in a hands-on way so that children not only gain the skills that they need but also know how to apply them in real life. Ari, for example, learns decimals and percentages by actually counting money in the classroom. (The kids collected money on Halloween night as part of a fundraiser for UNICEF.) This curriculum is used by many public schools, including in our own district.
On the other hand, there is controversy around it as parents in nearby Palo Alto, California yanked their kids from the public schools when the district adopted the Everyday Mathematics textbook. A mathematics professor from Stanford University had this to say about it:
In summary, the authors of Everyday Math feel that it is worthwhile to trade computational fluency and speed for having algorithms in which the underlying properties stand out in the clearest possible way. I do not regard this as a necessary or desirable tradeoff. The connections of the theory with the algorithms are important to demonstrate, but need to be done only when the algorithms are introduced. One does not need to saddle students with less effective methods in order to remind them of this connection every time they perform a calculation.
When I asked my friend what he wanted taught instead, he said “Singapore Math.” I did notice that many top private schools, like Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., and in our area, do teach Singapore Math. I looked it up on Wikipedia:
In the United States, Singapore Math is a teaching method based on the primary textbooks and syllabus from the national curriculum of Singapore. These textbooks have a consistent and strong emphasis on problem solving and model drawing, with a focus on in-depth understanding of the essential math skills recommended in the NCTM Curriculum Focal Points (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, and the proposed Common Core State Standards.
Explanations of math concepts are exceptionally clear and simple (often just a few words in a cartoon balloon), so that students (Singapore is a cosmopolitan nation) can read it easily.  The method has become more popular since the release of scores from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 2003 showed Singapore at the top of the world in 4th and 8th grade mathematics. This was the third study by the NCES, and the 2007 TIMSS was released in December 2008.
When you read about how Asian children abroad are kicking our U.S. assess in math, it is hard not to question whether you are doing the best that you can to prepare your children for the jobs of the future. Considering that I am so math-illiterate that I didn’t even understand much of the discussion around this controversy, I took a deep breath and talked about it with my husband.
We read many articles together. Rest assured, Everyday Math has been tested and approved by certified mathematicians. The University of Chicago is no joke. The difference between Everyday Math and Singapore Math appears to be its implementation, and quite frankly, my husband and I hated math when we were growing up. The fact that it is Ari’s favorite subject tells us that the school is doing something right. And if we have this correct, we do think that calculators should be used, including on the SAT and that kids should use computers in education, in general. These tools were created for a reason.
Also, call it hippy-dippy, but I think there are a lot of unconventional ways to teach math, which makes me wonder if it doesn’t go hand-in-hand with the actual math curriculum at Ari’s school: music, learning languages and critical thinking in general.
Finally, I am not convinced that teaching Singapore Math across all U.S. classrooms will automatically convert our children into mathematical prodigies. There are many differences between Singapore and the United States in that we do not support teachers as they do in Singapore, a universal healthcare system that takes up only 3% of the country’s GDP as well as a larger safety net for families. And this isn’t even touching on the cultural differences, in which Asian children are expected to be obedient and American children encouraged to question and even rebel.
The bottom line: I am not willing to take up a picket sign over this. What say you? Do you know what math curriculum is taught in your children’s schools?