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If math were a color...

Elmhurst Press
Friday January 14, 2000


If math were a color ...
by Marcia Tsicouris


In 1993/94 District 205 adopted the University of Chicago Everyday Math project as its K-5 curriculum and currently utilizes it to some degree in the middle schools and at the high school level. Since then, it has come up for review and the committee elected to re-instate it for another term. Why? I can only deduce the decision was based on economics and not the program's effectiveness. Everyday Math does not require the purchase of textbooks or workbooks. Copies are made from masters or other copies. We purchased the program only a few years after it went on the market. Is it possible to include Everyday Math among those of best practices after such a short time? The U of C acknowledged some of its shortcoming and published an optional Skills Link supplement in July 1998.

Everyday Math. On which days exactly is this program effective? If you're a 5th grader, maybe it works on the days you have art. Or, possibly, on the days you study nutrition, or on the days you discuss weather conditions. In lieu of practicing long division or mastering multiplication facts our 5th graders spend math time on exercises such as this:

  1. If math were a color, it would be --, because --.
  2. If it were a food, it would be --, because --.
  3. If it were weather, it would be --, because --.

If this type of, so called, math activity takes you by surprise, I'll allow time here for primal screams as did the author of the Wall Street Journal article where I first learned of this particular atrocity. (I verified its occurrence with my 5th grader!)

In 4th grade, my son's fraction assignment was marked wrong when he identified 1/5 of the dogs pictured on his Home Link as being spotted. After checking it myself and talking with the teacher I found the copy quality was so poor it was nearly impossible to detect that a 2nd dog out of 5 was spotted.

1st through 3rd graders are encouraged to become dependent on calculators, peers, and parents to accomplish their goals. Calculators are introduced early and often. Internationally, U.S. students' math scores ranked among the lowest in the world. Countries with the highest scores, Japan, China, and East Asian countries don't permit the use of calculators until high school. They feel students must first master the concepts and operations necessary for mathematical problem solving.

Everyday Math lessons are based on a spiraling curriculum providing no room for mastery in any one area. New concepts are introduced one after another assuming children will pick up on the material as it is sporadically revisited throughout the year. It's difficult to find two of the same type of math problem on any one Home Link. (If you do, its likely your child's teacher has opted to supplement with worksheets from other programs such as Addison Wesley.)

In an attempt to promote problem solving skills, many exercises are done in groups. Unfortunately, it is not possible to develop mathematical problem solving skills without the basic tools necessary to arrive at a correct answer. However, Everyday Math is not concerned with correct answers. This program prefers to emphasize the creative processes used to arrive at any answer. I hope my financial advisor, banker, pharmacist, etc. don't share the U of C's position on this. A math problem isn't solved until you've reached the correct answer. Like a carpenter, a students' problem solving skills are useless with out proper tools!

Everyday Math places no importance on math facts, and no benchmarks are established in the program for mastering them. In place of math facts, students are required to learn a multitude of algorithms. Defenders of the program insist this clumsy process provides each student the opportunity to select the algorithm that works best for him/her. Yet, in 5th grade, instructions continue to specify which algorithm to use for the assignment.

Virtually every Home Link is prefaced with the words: Show someone at home; Have someone at home; With someone at home; Tell someone at home. The message sent to my 3rd grader is that she's incapable of doing math independently.

Thanks to this program, essentially, she is incapable. I have to re-teach each concept as it arises (in addition to teaching basic math facts) because the U of C sees no merit in mastery.

Some may argue they like the program. As with Whole Language, there is a small population of students that possess a natural aptitude for the subject. These students will excel regardless how effective or ineffective the program. Whole Language is a testament to that. For the majority, Everyday Math will create generations of math disabled students as Whole Language created generations of reading disabled students.

Back to the ridiculous 5th grade exercise: If math were a color, it would be black and white, for math is an exact science with concrete, absolute, correct solutions. If it were a food, it would be something high in nutrition like fruits and vegetables, as these would nourish and develop the brain. If it were weather, it would be clear, bright and crisp to keep skills sharp and the mind alert.

Given our students are burdened with Everyday Math; the color of math is gray and fuzzy with little importance placed on correctness and none placed on mastery. The food choice is junk food with little nutritional value serving only to clog arteries and provide immediate gratification. And, weather, no doubt, it's a tornado whose spiraling winds leave our students strewn at the bottom of the scale.

By my calculations, Everyday Math equates to educational malpractice!

Check it out yourself. There are some great websites on the Internet. One of my favorites is Mathematically Correct, at http://www.mathematicallycorrect.com.

Marcia Tsicouris
Elmhurst, Illinois

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