Column: Core standards don’t add up

Farm Forum

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the American educational system was radically different from the elitist, centrally planned systems of Europe. State education departments were tiny and oversight of our elementary and secondary schools was, for the most part, left to more than 10,000 independent local school boards.

A chaotic mess? Hardly. By any measure, American K-12 schools were the finest on Earth. Particularly important, we weren’t a one-size-fits-all system: We had more students studying a broader range of subjects than any other country.

With the ability to adapt quickly to local needs, our schools gave us a better and more appropriately trained work force than any other nation, the most egalitarian society on Earth and a people whose standard of living was the envy of the world.

But then came Sputnik and a largely unwarranted panic about the state of American education. Within months of the 1957 Soviet launching of the first artificial satellite, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, a measure intended to create a generation of top-notch mathematicians and scientists. A good goal, perhaps, but the camel had his nose in the tent.

The NDEA provided funds for everything from encouraging the teaching of foreign languages, to modernizing high school science labs, to loans for low-income college students. It also provided millions to develop and implement a radically new mathematics curriculum, what came to be called New Math.

The idea behind New Math was to introduce college-level mathematics concepts as early as possible. The old elementary math texts were trashed, replaced by books that included elements of Boolean algebra, symbolic logic, modular arithmetic and set theory.

The result was a disaster, and the nation quickly went from wondering why Johnny couldn’t read to wondering why Johnny couldn’t add.

Hated by parents who couldn’t help their kids with homework, derided by real mathematicians as jargon-filled gobbledygook and mocked by humorists ranging from Tom Lehrer to Charles Schultz, New Math reformers were forced to retreat.

Unfortunately, the New Math philosophy has come back bigger and badder than ever.

Desperate to escape the penalties they’d face under unmeetable No Child Left Behind targets and eager to latch on to billions in new federal money, state education boards throughout the country have embraced Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and the associated Common Core standards in English and mathematics.

Duncan and his sycophants in the education bureaucracy insist that the Common Core math standards raise the bar for U.S. schools. Essentially, though, this bar-raising is just the New Math game all over again, introducing K-12 students to the jargon of higher math while delaying and de-emphasizing the skills students really need. In the Nov. 20 issue of Atlantic, math education writer Barry Garelick warns that the Common Core is going to give us “little mathematicians who don’t know how to do actual math.”

Reading through the Common Core standards themselves ( should convince those who care about public education that we’re headed toward another New Math-type disaster. Time to act before the education tent is nothing but


Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at Northern State University. He can be reached at The views are his and do not represent NSU.