Guiding American math education reform

July 25, 2014

Ford School Professor David Cohen and his wife, Magdalene Lampert, cited in Elizabeth Green's July 23 New York Times Magazine article, "Why Do Americans Stink at Math?"; the article will be published in the Sunday print edition.

American teachers, even American math teachers, suffer from the same math challenges as the rest of the country, Lampert and Cohen argue, which means that barriers to education reform often seem insurmountable. Green writes that the difficulty of adopting the recent common core math reforms lies in the fact that teachers are generally not taught common core techniques very well. The reform package's pedagogical techniques are intended to help students develop an understanding of math as an intuitive process, not simply as a series of rituals carried out on paper, but teachers rarely spend more than four days in training before they are expected to teach.

Because of this, teachers either apply the new techniques poorly or resist them actively. This has been the case in each of the failed education reforms since the "new math" of the 1960s, Greene writes, describing the time when David Cohen was studying another attempted education reform in California in 1986 and observed how "[o]ne teacher deliberately replaced a new textbook's problem-solving pages with the old worksheets he was used to using."

Greene sees a way forward in an approach in which students work on problems on their own, then in peer groups, and finally as a whole class, in order to develop a creative, dynamic approach to the subject. This differs from traditional American approaches, but is overwhelmingly popular in Japan, where it developed out of interest in education reform documents that were originally written by Lampert and several colleagues in the 1980s.

"To cure our innumeracy," Green concludes, "we will have to accept that the traditional approach we take to teaching math—the one that can be mind-numbing, but also comfortingly familiar—does not work."

David K. Cohen is professor of education and public policy. His research focuses on implementing and evaluating reforms in K-12 education. He is co-director of a national study of efforts to improve teaching and learning in high-poverty elementary schools. Magdalene Lampert is professor of education at the School of Education. She focuses on understanding and portraying the world of classroom practice to the academic community, providing images of practice that make the proposed reforms in mathematics education concrete, and experimenting with interactive multimedia tools for both analyzing and representing the work of teaching mathematics for understanding in school.