Palo Alto– a beautiful town surrounding Stanford University, where Hewlett-Packard was born in a residential garage in 1938, marking the beginning of the Silicon Valley tech industry and innovation culture. Many celebrities such as Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg have lived or are currently living here. In recent years, the town has welcomed many Chinese families who have migrated from surrounding towns, as well as attracting many new immigrants from China and around the world to settle here. Despite skyrocketing housing prices, many families have resolutely sold their luxury homes in surrounding towns and moved into run-down small houses in the town, mainly to allow their children to attend one of the best school districts in California, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), and grow up in the atmosphere of Stanford University. The district has 12 elementary schools, 3 middle schools, and 2 high schools, and currently over 30% of students in the district are of Chinese descent.
However, gradually, more and more Chinese families in the town have discovered that the teaching level of the district is unsatisfactory, with few math teachers who are both highly skilled and dedicated, and many teachers who are mediocre and do not correct homework. What is most frustrating is their children’s math education– the slow pace and convoluted homework have turned gifted children into math underachievers. Opening their children’s math textbooks, the shallow content and disorganized arrangement make it difficult for parents who want to help their children.
Of course, parents are at a loss–“a mile wide and an inch deep” is a perfect description of the K-12 math curriculum in American primary and secondary schools. This math curriculum structure determines the inevitability of the failure of math education in K-12 grades in the United States.
Residents of the town may not be aware that the town has experienced multiple “math wars”– hundreds of parents signed petitions protesting against poor textbooks to the district committee in 1995 and 2009, and this is just a microcosm of the frequent “math wars” that have erupted throughout the United States in the past few decades. Most residents of the town are unaware that a set of even poorer quality math textbooks is quietly creeping into local elementary school classrooms.
Palo Alto is known for having many knowledgeable families, and with the support of their parents, students’ math skills are relatively good. However, the complex reasons behind the gap between the overall math levels of the American public and American K-12 students may exceed the imagination of Chinese parents. How did American math deteriorate to its current state? Over the past few years, as my child transferred from China to Palo Alto for elementary and middle school, I observed the chaos of math education in the United States and could not understand how such poor education could be popular and harm the country and the people. While writing an English article attempting to unravel this mystery, I stumbled upon two little-known papers by David Klein, a math professor at California State University, Northridge: “A quarter century of US ‘math wars’ and political partisanship” and “A Brief History of American K-12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century.” After reading them, I was enlightened. Inspired by these two papers, I searched and read hundreds of materials, tracing the roots of anti-intellectualism in American education thought back to the Enlightenment era in the 18th century. I also dug up and organized the facts of nearly 40 years of planning and implementation of American education reform since the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Based on this research, I wrote this article about the epic of the century-long math wars in the United States.
Over the past century, the “wars” surrounding basic math education in the United States have been surprisingly fierce and spectacular. The number of battles, the number of scholars involved, the complexity of political and business interests involved, and the sharp ideological opposition of all parties involved are comparable to a classic drama, which is both lamentable and thought-provoking.
Looking back at the century-long history of the American Math Wars and education reform movement not only answers our various questions about why basic math education in the United States is so poor, but also provides a window for new and old immigrants to understand the ebb and flow of American politics and social ideology. It also helps readers sharpen their discernment of various advanced educational concepts and imported products. For residents of Palo Alto with school-age children, reading this long article carefully will help everyone understand the origin and development of the district’s pilot program for new math textbooks. Some of the content in this article comes from the translation and compilation of the two papers by Professor David Klein (with his permission), while some comes from the author’s own thinking, data search, and repeated communication and discussion with several mathematicians deeply involved in the “math wars”. Therefore, it cannot be considered a purely original work. The author throws out this article as a starting point and welcomes everyone’s corrections. It is hoped that brave, resourceful, and ambitious individuals can jointly explore and brainstorm to help millions of American students of all ethnicities find a feasible path to learning math.
It is widely known that Americans are bad at math, but the extent of their deficiency may be shocking to some, as reported in a New York Times article from July 2014 titled “Why American Students Are So Bad at Math.” According to the article, nearly two-thirds of fourth and eighth-grade students are not proficient in math (meaning they score in the middle range of passing, proficient, and advanced). In the 2013 national assessment, there was a question about reading a thermometer where each marking represented two degrees instead of one, and more than half of fourth-grade students answered it incorrectly. Another question was a multiple-choice problem that read: “A girl sold 15 cups of lemonade on Saturday and sold twice as many on Sunday. How many cups did she sell in all?” Yet, three-quarters of fourth-grade students did not select the correct answer of 15 + (2 * 15). The article also recounted a fast-food chain’s failed attempt to compete with McDonald’s by offering a “1/3 pound burger” for the same price as McDonald’s “Quarter-Pounder” despite the fact that 1/3 pound is greater than 1/4 pound. Market research revealed that customers thought they were being tricked and assumed that the 1/3 pound burger had less meat than the 1/4 pound one.
At the end of the article, readers also shared many ridiculous stories: a math tutor said that he had tutored hundreds of students over the years, but among them, there were no more than 12 who could recite the multiplication table perfectly. One guy complained that one day he went into a small shop to buy some expensive Spanish ham weighing 1/8 pound and asked the young clerk to slice it thinly for his sandwich. The young man earnestly sliced and sliced, and the guy waited anxiously until he approached to check. With sweat on his face, the young man apologized, “Sir, it’s going to take a while to slice 0.8 pounds of ham!”
If these anecdotes make you chuckle, the revelation in the article may give you chills: research has found that 17% of medication errors in the United States are caused by calculation errors by doctors or pharmacists; when answering a survey, three-quarters of doctors miscalculated the mortality and major complications associated with routine medical care.
The low quality of public basic education is a chronic problem and public hazard in American society, for which every taxpayer pays a high price. The US government and private sector have tried their best to improve math education in primary and secondary schools, but have repeatedly failed. For example, when the Obama administration came to power, it launched the “Common Core” education standards nationwide and proclaimed on its official website: “Our goal is to change the shortcomings of past American math education, which is ‘one mile wide and one inch deep,’ and help students establish a solid foundation and firmly grasp concepts… This standard requires students to have a certain level of speed and accuracy in calculations, such as multiplication of single digits, in order to further learn more complex content and methods.”
Faced with the unreliable math teaching in American public schools, many parents quietly send their children to outside tutoring classes or personally tutor them. Perhaps Americans are inherently lacking in math genes? Or is it because the multi-syllable pronunciation of English makes them less adept at memorizing the multiplication table than in Chinese? There are many explanations, but they often fail to address the root cause. David Klein’s paper points us in the right direction – for over a hundred years, progressive education experts and politicians who held these beliefs have been the driving force behind dismantling math education in American primary and secondary schools. It is precisely under their successive efforts that math education in American public schools gradually declined and slid down to the point where it is today, and it is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.