What Are the “Math Wars”?

If you work in the education market or, frankly, read or listen to mainstream media, you have likely heard of the “reading wars”—the debate over whether phonics or balanced literacy is the best approach to helping young learners build strong literacy skills. But did you know that for decades there have been “math wars” in the education world with their own factions taking positions on what is the best approach to teaching math?

Some think the math wars began with the 1989 publication of the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) followed by the development and adoption of a new generation of math curricula inspired by these standards. Others say they go back as far as the 1950s.

More fuel was added to the debate when the Common Core Standards were released in 2010, bringing with them much discussion over their real-world approach to teaching math and generating tens of thousands of news articles on the topic. The main aspect of that debate was whether students should be taught skills based on formulas or algorithms (fixed, step-by-step procedures for solving math problems) or using an inquiry-based approach where they are exposed to real-world problems that help them develop fluency in number sense, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

Math Illustration - Colorful Numbers On Yellow Background
Colorful numbers on yellow background. Horizontal composition with copy space. Directly above.

Now there is a new movement afoot aligning its stance with the evidence-based approach of the science of reading: the science of math. Started by a group of special-education researchers in the midst of the pandemic, the science of math movement is focused on using objective evidence about how students learn math in order to make educational decisions and to inform policy and practice. Similar to proponents of the science of reading, supporters of the math movement believe that research demonstrates that teaching math properly in the early grades will drastically decrease the number of children who need intervention later to catch up to their grade level.1 And the movement has been gaining momentum. The Science of Math Facebook page has more than 25,000 followers who are constantly posting and discussing instructional strategies.2

At the same time, we are seeing approaches to teaching math change at the state level. Just this last summer, the California State Board of Education adopted a new math framework that took nearly four years and three revisions to develop. The new guidelines aim to promote problem-solving and applying math to real-world situations. They also recommend creating a data-science track for high school students who aren’t interested in calculus. Not surprisingly, this new framework intensified the already heated discussion over the reasons for learning math and the best ways of teaching it.3

We don’t know if the current discussion about math instruction will attain the populist and legislative level of attention that the science of reading has garnered. But one thing we do know is that students in the United States are struggling in math. The release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for the 2022-2023 school year showed that the average scores for 13-year-olds declined 9 points in math compared to the previous assessment administered during the 2019–2020 school year. Compared to a decade ago, the average scores have declined 14 points in math.4

The national discussion about the best ways to teach math to ensure student success presents opportunities for education companies to promote how they address these challenges to educators around the country. Want to discuss strategies for reaching them with your 2023-2024 school year marketing campaigns? MDR is here to help. Reach out to us today!

1the Science of Math

2Science of Math

3California Approves Revised Math Framework as a Step Forward for Equity and Excellence

4Scores decline again for 13-year-old students in reading and mathematics