Series: About Early Math

Math in School Shaped by Politics

In this opinion piece for The New York Times, Christopher J. Phillips, author of The New Math: A Political History, argues that the over-politicization of math education is a major cause for U.S. students’ ongoing struggles with math in school. He makes a connection between the current criticisms of the Common Core and the political bickering that surrounded “New Math,” an education reform that took place in the 1950s but largely dissolved by the 1970s. Although he contends that “there’s not one right approach to how we should train students to think,” it is the students themselves who are hindered by the constant back-and-forth between politicians.

The Early Math Collaborative’s Jeanine Brownell made a similar point, calling the commotion over the Common Core “a bad movie sequel” to the “math wars” that took place in the 1990s. In all of these cases, a major argument centers on the development of conceptual understanding (called “frilly math” by opponents of the reforms in the 1970s and “fuzzy math” in the 1990s) versus the memorization of math facts (colloquially termed “drill-and-kill”).