New Math: The Curriculum That Failed Students And Teachers

By Karen Harris
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.