How Sputnik Forced American Kids to Learn “New Math”

The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 sent America into a panic. Lawmakers and educators became worried that the U.S. was falling behind the Soviets. Government officials worried that if something wasn’t done to boost science education and mathematical skill of American students and future scientists, the nation couldn't win back the technological ground it appeared to have lost to the Soviets. The very next year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act, and Congress poured money into the American education system at all levels. Every high school subject — from history to chemistry — was reformed, but it was mathematics which was hit the hardest. With New Math, out went the rote drill and practice of math facts and formulas. Instead, along with a whole new vocabulary of terms related to mathematical operations, students were taught abstract concepts involving operations on sets of numbers grouped by their characteristics and properties. Young kids who could barely do multiplication were forced to learn abstract algebra, modular arithmetic, matrices, symbolic logic, Boolean algebra, and other complex stuff they might never need. Complex problems were too far too difficult for elementary students to grasp, and many parents complained that they were incapable of helping their children with homework because they didn’t understand what their kids were learning. In the face of mounting criticism from teachers, students, scientists and educationalists, New Math fell out of favor. In fact, most educators didn’t think it was worth teaching. In 1999, Time magazine even placed it on a list of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century.