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Whatever Happened To New Math?
In the early sixties it was going to revolutionize American education. By the early seventies it had confounded a generation of schoolchildren. Today it is virtually forgotten. But as we head toward another round of educational reforms, we should recall why it went wrong.
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
Begle countered that the new-math approach was more practical than the endless repetition of word problems because it prepared children for the future, and “since we do not know the answers to tomorrow’s problems, we cannot teach them.” It was an esoteric defense that Beberman could do little to bolster. Hospitalized with a heart ailment that eventually required surgical replacement of his aortic valve, he sat out much of 1966, disillusioned.
More professional battles were to come. As evidence slowly mounted that college-bound students trained properly in the new approach performed at least as well on standardized tests as those taught the old way—and felt more confident than their peers in tackling complicated math problems—there was little time to celebrate. Popular sentiment was beginning to shift, and with it congressional enthusiasm for the financing of educational reform. Good teaching and good textbooks could not be separated from bad. And for every bright student with a thirst for math, there was one who had trouble figuring the charges on his paper route. New math got no credit for the enthusiasm and all the blame for the ignorance, even in those school districts where it was never seriously adopted. When Beberman died suddenly in 1971, at the age of forty-five, federal funding died with him. UICSM shut down soon after.
For every enthusiastic first-grade teacher who introduced Cuisenaire rods, there was a frightened traditionalist who refused to budge.
Begle labored on at Stanford, but by 1972 SMSG had completed its textbook work. Its influence on math curricula remained enormous. But the long effort had taken a physical toll. Racked by emphysema, Begle would fight on futilely for serious research into how to teach mathematics better—an admission perhaps that better math had not produced better teachers. He died in 1978 at the age of sixty-three.
New math did not disappear with either Beberman or Begle. Where it had been successful, it lingered on in the teaching techniques of individual instructors and in watered-down new-math textbooks, which are still evident in elementary and high schools today. Because it put such stock in creativity and the abstract, new math appealed most to the brighter, college-bound students, who, some have argued, probably would have done well anyway. Average and marginal students could suffer dearly at the hands of an uninspired teacher and a poor textbook, and frequently did. But that spirit-crushing combination could exist independently of new math too.
The villain, if there is one, might be the country’s penchant for the “quick fix.” Had Sputnik not flown, UICSM, SMSG, the Madison Project, and the other experimental programs might have evolved slowly and carefully into a national curriculum; as it was, they were shoved to center stage, lavishly financed, and told to perform a miracle overnight. They couldn’t, so the country passed on to the next educational fad (“back to basics”), labeled the previous one a failure, and blamed it for low test scores and a decline in skills.
Did this fall from grace tarnish the new-math legacy? Undoubtedly. New math became a pejorative term. And because it was difficult to know if trying to understand the structure of math made it any easier, most teachers deserted discovery learning without any pangs. Still, few would dispute that there now is a willingness to teach tougher concepts in the primary grades. The reordering of high school math—putting all geometry together in the tenth grade, for example—also seems to be a lasting change. So, too, does the continuing move of calculus from college to a high school senior course.
Did the failure of new math bury the notion of a national curriculum? Probably not. Conservative critics thought they had won the battle against a national curriculum when they helped cut funding for educational reform. But our growing reliance on standardized testing has inadvertently produced what Lynn Steen, a mathematics professor at Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, calls a “national math curriculum that no one has planned.”
Ironically, new math’s most lasting impact might be that of a cautionary tale, as today’s curriculum reformers begin again—this time from the teachers up, not from the universities down. Would Beberman and Begle have applauded today’s attempt to make math less abstract, more meaningful, and more egalitarian by creating a single core curriculum that appeals to all? And how would they have felt about letting children progress at their own rates within this new curriculum?
It’s impossible to know. What is certain is that both men loved mathematics. And knew its power. Both were willing to sacrifice everything to share and transmit that vision to a fickle world. Still, as the nation continues its endless search for solutions, I am haunted—and chastened—by Beberman’s words: “Math is as creative as music, painting or sculpture. The high school freshman will revel in it if we let him play with abstractions. But insisting that he pin numbers down is like asking him to catch a butterfly to explain the sheen on its wings—the magical glint of the sun rubs off on his fingers and the fluttering thing in his hands can never lift into the air again to renew his wonder.”