Saturday, April 2, 2011

Q & A with Jim Milgram

Prof. R. James Milgram is Professor of Mathematics Emeritus at Stanford University.  He was one of the authors of the previous California Standards, and the main reviewer of the NCTM Curriculum Focal Points.  Additionally, he served on the National Board for Education Science that oversees the IES – the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, and he also served on the NASA Advisory Council, as well as the Validation Committee for the new Core Standards.

Prof. R. James Milgram and I are members of the American Math Forum (AMF). We are thankful for the opportunity AMF has provided in making this Q & A session possible.

1.       Do you prefer Traditional Math over Reform Math?

Anyone interested in majoring in a technical area should have a much more traditional program than the reform programs. Though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with some of the reform ideas, the implementations are worse than horrible at this time.

2.       Do you prefer Singapore Math over Everyday Math (EM)?

There is a pretty good program hidden inside EM.  But no more than 1 in 500 teachers are capable of locating and delivering it.  However, that one teacher would almost certainly be able to do better on her own.

Singapore math, on the other hand, is very solid mathematically and in terms of the problems students are given.  But there are some limitations.  It isn't quite as effective for ALL students as the pure Russian program.  Also, there are many elementary school teachers who don't know enough mathematics to deliver the Singapore program effectively, and need extensive professional development.  (Singapore adopted the Chinese curriculum in 1984, but this was the program the Chinese adopted from Russia in 1955. However, the Russian program requires teachers who are even more mathematically knowledgeable than does Singapore.)

3.       If you had to pinpoint two/three main deficiencies in EM and Singapore, what would they be?

There are no major deficiencies in the Singapore program, just a few points where it could be better than it is.  On the other hand, the recommended lessons in EM are mostly useless.

4.       Does it make sense to try to merge the two programs?

Not from my perspective.

5.       Do you think using EM is actually doing a disservice to our young generation and impairing our future economic competitiveness?

In general, yes.

6.       Do you think Parents/Educators/Mathematicians would be well advised to reject EM if they had the opportunity to do so?


7.       How can you explain why EM has spread rapidly like a prairie wildfire?

For many years I've felt that when school administrators get their "advanced" administration degrees from the ed-schools, a critical component should be SERIOUS courses in statistics and data analysis.  But it seems that there is virtually no chance this will ever happen.

Right now, EM is being used in the Palo Alto school district, and as expected, recent data seems to show that the most seriously affected students are those with the most limited financial resources.  The wealthier parents can send their kids to after-school tutoring programs that are result oriented, not dogma driven.  It is worth noting that, once it became clear that Palo Alto would choose EM, it seems that Kumon and the others opened branches in the Palo Alto area.

8.       As you know, I do not believe there is an organized “conspiracy” purposely thrusting a deficient program on our children… although I know there are some shenanigans going on for sure… Yet, I also find it hard to believe that a “bureaucratic bungle” would last so long and is actually growing. For example, our NYC gifted and talented “Anderson School” dove in the Koolaid pool in 2009… Although the top notch “Hunter College Elementary School” adopted Singapore Math in 2007 and other public schools (e.g. PS132) are also adopting Singapore Math versions.

All in all it seems to me that if the science behind EM is borderline fraudulent (meaning that EM has twisted the scientific evidence on “spaced” or “distributed” practice and instruction methods to fit its reform agenda) and if most mathematicians are opposed to EM and if most parents are frustrated with EM and tutoring their kids … then why is this program still around? I call it “institutional inertia” and “high barriers of entry”… but even that doesn’t satisfy me.

Do you have any ideas? Are we hostage to a “conspiracy”?

Actually, as mathematicians we should not make judgments one-way-or-another about teaching methods.  This is not our area of expertise.  We - especially our foreign born and trained colleagues - may think that the pedagogy is extremely strange, but we are clearly not qualified to discuss this issue as experts.

However, we don't have to discuss pedagogy in this case.  We can see that the mathematical content of the program is absolutely minimal if it is delivered as intended by the authors.  As a result, we do object as content experts, but our input is ignored by school administrators.  After all, we've never been in "the classroom."

So, one has to take a long term look at what happens.  Among the districts that started using EM 15 - 20 years back, none, to my knowledge, still use it.  And a number of districts, such as, e.g. Philadelphia, seem to quietly trying to get rid of it without losing too much face.

When we first started this fight, EM was just the best of a really horrible collection of such programs.  We managed to get rid of the others in California, and, as far as I can tell, when we said that EM was the best of these programs, though all were extremely problematic, this was interpreted by the ed-schools and school administrators as saying that "EM is the best."

9.       When you say "EM was just the best of a really horrible collection of such programs", I take it you include TERC and Mathland among them, right?

Yes, I include TERC and Mathland in that group.  But, to be fair, most of the traditional U.S. programs were not terribly good either.

10.   You say "Among the districts that started using EM 15 - 20 years back, none, to my knowledge, still use it." Are you +/- certain of that fact?  It appears that District 2 in NYC has been using TERC since late 90s. In other words, it seems Reform Math (TERC or EM) is spreading, not shrinking... Is there any hard data you know of that I can use/quote?

All I know is most of the original list of districts, and for this set, I'm virtually certain that none are using the program now.  But I don't have rigorous data.

11.  You say "we don't make judgments one-way-or-another about teaching methods" Yet by favoring traditional math, are you not making a judgment that "teaching one topic until mastery has been achieved" is better than say the spiraling method? Isn't the difference between Traditional and Reform also a difference in pedagogy?

There is one very annoying aspect of EM in that it virtually forces teachers to use specific pedagogical techniques.  I don't like any of this, but I refuse to say whether it's right or wrong.  However, what bothers me most of all - and I can be regarded as an expert here - is the low level of the math that the intended program presents.

12.  You say “this was interpreted by the Ed. schools and school administrators as saying that ‘EM is the best’.” Didn’t you and other advisors dispute the misinterpretation? How can they do this with impunity? That’s what I don’t understand… how can they steamroll over learned math experts and frustrated teachers and parents? That makes no sense to me. For a few years? Yes. For 20+ years? No way. How can that be? Is it really because some/most teachers and teacher instructors are math-phobic and thus … perpetuate a deficient program they can actually understand and teach?

Yes, a number of us stated our reservations about the program repeatedly and with explicit examples of the kinds of issues involved.  However, those statements were almost universally ignored in the ed.-schools and the country’s school districts.


  1. Pascal, thanks for this great interview. Some of us are listening, and we'll tell others, so keep up the good work.

  2. This was once of the most balanced and fair articles that I have ever read regarding the math wars. As someone who has a math background, and who has studied mathematics education, I will tell you that neither traditional math nor reform math works. If you want to teach math, the best thing to do is to throw the textbook in the garbage can. If that is too radical a step, use a textbook printed before 1980 (i.e., it'll be neither reform nor tradition).