New Math: The Curriculum That Failed Students And Teachers

By Sarah Norman | May 24, 2024

New Math?

In the 1960s and 1970s, a sweeping educational reform known as "New Math" promised to revolutionize the way mathematics was taught in American schools. With an emphasis on abstract concepts like set theory and non-decimal bases, this curriculum aimed to foster a deeper understanding of mathematical principles. However, the ambitious initiative soon proved to be a monumental challenge for both students and teachers, leading to widespread confusion and frustration. This slideshow delves into the rise and fall of New Math, uncovering the reasons behind its failure and the lasting impact it had on generations of learners. Explore the bold experiment that aimed to reshape education but ended up as a cautionary tale in the annals of academic reform.

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High School students in the 1970s working on an algebra problem. (Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

They're two words that still scare teachers and schoolchildren of the 1960s: New Math. This dreaded and traumatic change in the teaching of basic mathematics had young kids pondering abstract algebra, modular arithmetic, matrices, symbolic logic, Boolean algebra, and other super-mathy stuff they might never need. New Math confused everybody, and didn't seem to pay off -- kids were wrangling with abstract ideas about math without actually being able to get the right answer.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit in the closing years of the 1950s, it served as a wake-up call for Americans. In that one moment, Americans, who had prided themselves on being the best nation in the world, were forced to admit they'd been bested by the Russians. The solution, many experts claimed, was education reform, particularly in mathematics. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a result, schools adopted a radical new math curriculum that confounded teachers, parents and students and became a national disaster. Here’s how. 

Experts Blamed Traditional Math Textbooks

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Math had always been taught using drills and repeated practices until the skills were mastered. Skills built upon each other. But education experts and mathematicians who advocated for the New Math curriculum wanted to include higher order math along with the basics, as a way to show students how math connects to real-world problem-solving. The overall goal was to produce high school graduates with advanced mathematics skills who would be ready to tackle new technology.