Over the past 20 years educators have fought over the best way to teach numbers to kids. Advocates of traditional math tout the practice of algorithms and teacher-centered learning, whereas reform-math proponents focus on underlying concepts and student inquiry. In the face of continued declining scores in the U.S., these so-called math wars have heated up recently with the circulation of petitions, the release of contested curriculum guidelines and, in one case, the filing of a lawsuit. At stake is the ability of American high school graduates to perform everyday math tasks and compete in a global economy.
The war began in 1989, when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) released a set of standards that reshaped a generation of instruction. Instead of having students memorize formulas and compute problems such as adding fractions, advocates of reform math encouraged students to develop their own visual representations of math concepts and use calculators to solve numerical tasks.