Why Does Public School Math Fail?

Why Does Public School Math Fail?

That question is asked by Aleksey Nudelman in his article Why Public School Math Fails published on Dec 10 2010 in Sharepoint Technology Resource.

Nudleman’s 2nd grade son is enrolled in a public school in California that uses EverDayMath (EDM) as its instructional resource. EDM is a close cousin of TERC Investigations as it follows the same instructional approach. Nudelman notes with some dismay that his son’s class keeps revisiting the same topics over and over again without achieving mastery, a technique called spiraling, and comments that intent of these spiraled lessons appears to be to “have fun” as opposed to actually learn content.

The article is quite interesting in that this father’s experience echos our experience in Prince William County.

Why Public School Math Fails

By Alexi Nudelman

December 10, 2010 —  A lot has been said about the problems with public schools, and I am not going to list all of them here. Instead, I would like to share my personal experience as an illustration to summarize the reasons for the failure of public schools, and to propose a solution.

My son is in second grade in a California school district described by its administrators as one of the best in the state, but his math curriculum continues to puzzle me. A random set of math topics is presented without emphasis on concept development. For the third year in a row, my son is being taught all aspects of coin counting that can conceivably be considered “fun.” I believe that the purpose of studying math is the development of logical thinking, and that coin-counting is better done by machines.


Recently I had an opportunity to compare public education in Russia and in the United States, and I would like to share my observations. Soviet math education was one of the best in the world. Soviet universities competed for the best high school graduates, and they supported a system of Math Olympiads and math enrichment classes for secondary school students, which allowed universities to attract future college math wizards.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the massive emigration of experienced teachers, lack of funding and the loss of prestige for higher education, the quality of Russian math education has declined. Yet in a Pisa 2006 study on the quality of math education in various countries, 31% more Russian students scored at the highest (sixth) level compared to American students; this is despite the fact that Russian students spend less time in the classroom and per-pupil expenditures in Russian schools are a fraction of what they are in the U.S.

I was recently in Russia interviewing software engineers for a Russian subsidiary of my company. To my great surprise, the majority of candidates were easily able to solve a logical puzzle that had proved difficult for their American counterparts. (The puzzle is a variation of a weighing-steps minimization problem.) I think Russian engineers did better than their American counterparts did because they received a better secondary math education.

While Russian math has admittedly declined, the current state-approved math books closely resemble their excellent Soviet predecessors. They start with basic topics and gradually move to more advanced ones. There are many repetitive exercises to ensure that a student has mastered the previously covered topics. The books are colorful and fun to read, and there are slightly more challenging problems at the end of each lesson to pique student curiosity about subjects not directly covered in the lesson. The emphasis is on logic and problem-solving while building skills necessary to move to more advanced topics. There are non-standard problems to better prepare students for real-life problems.

My son attended a Russian elementary school during a Christmas break, and he was most impressed. The school day was shorter, there was more time to play after school, and he received daily math assignments that were given in the logical progression of the subject. He found Russian math lessons both challenging and interesting.

How do the Russian textbooks compare to the public school textbooks used by my son? His “Everyday Mathematics” textbook is purchased and held by the school. Parents do not see it until the end of the year when only the workbook is given to them. The “Everyday Mathematics” system is approved and recommended by the U.S. Department of Education; it presents mathematical topics in a random order and does not require students to master basic topics before they progress to more advanced ones.

In an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education in 1999, 200 mathematicians, including Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners, argued that “Everyday Mathematics” should not be used because it does not follow a logical order of the pupil’s math skills. Yet it continues to be used by many school districts across the U.S.

Many parents protest the “Everyday Mathematics” curriculum adopted by our school district, but they have had no discernible effect. The only way to get it removed is for a group of parents to mount a district-wide campaign against the curriculum. Unfortunately, given the cost of the campaign, it is cheaper to send a child to a private school.

What are the top reasons for the failure of public schools?

1) Universities have very little involvement with the public schools. Universities are the incubators of ideas and can make a decisive difference in the quality of the public-school education. American universities already have an abundant supply of high-quality applicants from the U.S. and abroad, and they do not need to invest time and effort in searching for or educating more talent in the public schools.

2) Math is taught by teachers who do not know mathematics. Several generations of students have had poor math instruction, and the majority of math teachers do not know math themselves. In Russian high and middle schools, only mathematics majors can teach the subject; in elementary school, qualification requires specialized elementary school math training.

3) Engineering careers are not lucrative. Section 1706 of the IRS code prevents one-person engineering firms from entering into consulting relationships with most American employers. This is because the IRS may reclassify the consultant as an employee and force its employer to pay back employment and social security taxes, even though the consultant already paid these taxes. Few employers that hire engineering consultants contractually demand that consultants are responsible for back taxes and penalties in the case of reclassification.

4) Parents cannot gauge the quality of their children’s education before it is too late. School districts are independently run and operated; they use different curricula and constantly shuffle teachers, students and principals. Parents and taxpayers should be able to determine easily how well students are doing in their school district compared to other districts without relying on school officials’ rhetoric that they provide excellent education.

In order to improve American public schools, we need to change our educational and tax policy. We need to create financial incentives for our universities to provide enrichment classes to public school students. States should require that school districts only employ math majors to teach math.

Repealing Section 1706 would go a long way in restoring the glory to engineering careers on par with medicine and law. Engineers operating the one-man shops would have better control over their intellectual property and, as a result, command higher salaries.

We also need to encourage school districts to seek accreditation for their math curricula. Accreditation should be state-regulated and reflect districts’ goals (e.g. keeping students busy, preparing students for college, or giving students a world-class education). Program accreditation would send parents a clear message regarding the quality of math education that they can expect at a particular school district.

Aleksey Nudelman, Ph.D., is the CEO of C# Computing and a co-author of an upcoming book, “Multiprocessor Programming with C#.”

Article forwarded to us from NYC HOLD National

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8 Responses to “Why Does Public School Math Fail?”

  1. Damn - Public Schools are a joke! Says:

    […] Atlantic Why government schools fail Top 5 Reasons Why Public Schools Are Failing Our Children Why Does Public School Math Fail? PWC Education Reform Blog Education bureaucrats crying 'poor' when they fail is really rich (Posted May 6, 2011) :: […]

  2. Sam Says:

    our school fails at much more than math…

  3. George DeMarse Says:

    More of the same “jerky” criticisms of the public schools. The teachers are “to blame” because they aren’t math majors.

    Where is the evidence that “math whizzes” are well-suited to teach students who struggle with mathematics? The cognitive science evidence shows that the “pedagogical tools” needed to teach math are just as important as being a math content whiz.

    Reform the tax code for “one-man” shops for engineers? This sounds like a wish list for engineers, not educators.

    Why is it always the public schools that are the problem? Charter schools don’t appear to do any better, although the public school critics always seem to find some statistics somewhere that favor charter schools over public schools.

    Many parents “protest” the “Everyday Mathematics” curriculum but are unable to make meaningful change?
    Parents whining about “something” to do with the public schools certainly isn’t new. Schools can’t implement every whim of every public school interest group just because they want it done “their way.”

    The Sage of Wake Forest

    • PTW Says:

      So there is nothing to do but continue in our failure? C’mon, if you have ever been exposed to education system outside of US, whether in Russia, India, Korea, Japan, China, Europe,… you know the American kids are totally screwed by their incompetent teachers, school districts, and the teacher’s unions in general. Although there may be individual teachers, who wish to do their best for the children, the system is completely broken.

  4. George DeMarse Says:

    We don’t need more crap about blaming the teachers’ unions which seem to be the total target for right wing ideologues. It’s the individual states, politicians and school boards that create the curricula–not the teachers’ unions.

    In fact, if we had more input from teachers’ unions instead of blaming them for system failure we would be further ahead in educating children. Teachers know most about what works and what doesn’t, not the politicians.

    Gee, teachers have an interest in their working conditions and the content of what they are teaching–why is that so evil?

    The Sage of Wake Forest

  5. Jane Doe Says:

    George, did you read the article? There was nothing in there about unions whatsoever.

    The author questioned the qualifications of math teachers in the US. Most K-5 teachers in the US aren’t math majors. Many admit that they are math-phobic and never really “got” math. Yet those teachers are considered qualified to teach math to our children and to review and select appropriate mathematics instructional materials.

    If you don’t have reservations with that then you need to take off your blinders!

    Improving mathematics instruction in this country starts with improving the mathematical knowledge of our K – 5 teachers. Just like reading, children need a strong foundation in number sense and computation to move ahead.


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