Storm clouds have been gathering around the Common Core for some time. Until now, most of the critical attention has been on the political ramifications of the program, that it centralizes and federalizes teaching, diminishing the power of parents to participate in the educational process. When the criticism does turn to the content of the curriculum, it usually focuses on social studies, such as Joy Pullmann’s excellent account of the Common Core’s trashing of the Constitution and Founding Fathers. Yet the Common Core’s treatment of math is proving to be even more questionable.

Judging from sample questions, Common Core math tries to reinvent the wheel in terms of the process of teaching. It focuses less on the teaching of problem solving and more on trying to teach overarching concepts. The result is math problems that are startlingly complex.

Teaching complex problem solving may sound like great news at first. Who could object to educating our children to have a deep conceptual understanding of things? After all, we need to keep ahead in the information and technology race with the rest of the world, do we not? The problem with that way of thinking was dealt with succinctly by one parent shocked and frustrated by his child’s Common Core homework assignment:

The problem with the question is that it transforms a subtraction problem that takes a single step to answer using conventional methods into a multi-step problem that only cause confusion. In trying to explain the “deep concept” to a second-grader the problem can serves only to confuse and upset. It seems Common Core is trying a top-down redesign of the whole process of learning, a redesign the complexity of which does not help to educate childrem, but instead leaves them in confused ignorance.

Remarkably, this is not the first time the government has tried just such a redesign of math education. In the 1960s, the government rolled out a very similar curriculum called New Math. New Math was built around the application of Set Theory and employed non-standard numeral systems in the hopes of instilling in students a conceptual understanding of “number.” The idea was that by ingraining a deep conceptual understanding of math, more advanced math knowledge could be taught more widely.

The impetus for the change in math education was a perceived knowledge gap in the late 1950s in the hard sciences and engineering between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the launch of Sputnik, American politicians and civic leaders began to fret that the Soviets were overtaking America in technical proficiency and came to believe that this gap would lead to devastating consequences for America in the Cold War. New Math was meant to build up the knowledge base of the American youth in order to compete.

Common Core math has been rolled out under very similar circumstances. Again America is facing a rising geopolitical foe, this time in the shape of China, a country which is experiencing frighteningly swift economic and technological growth. Much as New Math was meant to transform the educational system in order to compete with the perceived superiority of the SovietĀ system, so too is the Common Core meant to challenge the technical rise of China and other developing powers.

Yet New Math, somewhat unsurprisingly, failed miserably to catch on. It came under immediate criticism from educators, parents, and concerned citizens. Perhaps one of the most well remembered criticisms was delivered by the legendary mathematician and singer Tom Lehrer, whose song “New Math” was a raucous take-down of the absurdities of New Math (see video above).

One reason New Math failed to work was that teachers had to be entirely reeducated themselves in order to understand the complexity of the teaching methodology. Who would have thought that second-grade math teachers would not all have a working knowledge of Set Theory?

Another reason New Math failed was that the underlying premise, that broad-based high-level and practical mathematical knowledge could only be gained through deep conceptual understandings, was, and is, false. The parent who critiqued his child’s homework question understood this full well when he wrote, “In the real world, simplification is valued over complication.” This is the living truth of the technical engineering profession. Often trying to find simple mechanisms for how things work is much more effective and illuminating than is trying to find complex formulas for why they work. That certainly holds true in the early stages of education.

New Math failed and yet America was not buried under the tide of Communism. In fact, America’s technical edge only grew as the Cold War progressed. New Math failed, and Common Core math will fail, because the system they advocate does not take into account real world application and seeks to address a problem that does not exist. The problem of flagging math scores is not the methodology of teaching, but the entrenched power structures within the public education system.

The way to improve our country’s math scores is not to reinvent math, but to reform the teaching system at the administrative level. Tearing down corrosive traditions like tenure and seniority would go much farther to improve teaching than teaching Set Theory to elementary schoolers ever could.