Nearly 40 years ago, in the wake of Sputnik’s launch, New Math was supposed to save America—perhaps by implanting creative concepts into the minds of future rocket scientists and nuclear engineers. Giving short shrift to plain vanilla arithmetic, the National Science Foundation declared back then that New Math was the best way to bolster the mathematical ability of American youth, thereby leaving Soviet science in the dust.
As New Math curricula spread across the country, elementary students became fluent in the abstract vocabulary of concepts like set theory, which uses representative collections of objects to explain how numerical families overlapped or combined. Yet as the years passed, test scores made it clear that students deft at creating Venn diagrams had trouble with simple addition and multiplication, never mind long division. By 1965 University of Illinois mathematician Max Beberman, who at one time promoted New Math, reportedly said, “We’re in danger of raising a generation of kids who can’t do computational arithmetic.”
In 1967, when the first international mathematics study ?compared math students from 12 countries, U.S. students ranked last in one age group and next to last in another. Just ?six years later, the New Math program had largely been abandoned by school boards.
Why did New Math fail? Some mathematicians argue that the curricula were not given enough time; others, including David Klein, a mathematician at California State University at Northridge, say New Math’s failure was due in part to untrained instructors who did not understand what they were teaching. Conflicts over math education persist to this day. “It is surprising that it is so contentious,” Klein says. “Of all human endeavors, what is more objective than math?”