Is the debate over the science of math about to reignite the math wars - succeeding the reading wars? It's a hot, controversial and very important subject. Sarah Powell, an associate professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin, asked the following question to 15 kids at the end of their third grade: "Donna and Natasha folded 96 paper cranes. Donna folded 25 paper cranes. How many paper cranes did Natasha fold?"

This is a problem that students of this age should have been able to solve easily. Sadly, most of them could not. Only two of the 15 gave the correct solution. "I could send you hundreds of these. It's heartbreaking. How did we let it get to this? These are kids that just get passed from one grade level to the next. You shouldn't let a kid get to fourth grade if they can't add 12 plus 13. I see it as a huge equity issue. It is totally unfair what we are doing to these kids," said Powell.

Powell and other experts talked and shared their frustrations, in early 2020, about the poor state of math education in the USA. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a large number of students have been unable to master math. And the most recent test revealed that 60% of fourth graders and 67% of eighth graders do not even reach the proficient level for their grade.

Researchers deplored that math gets less attention in school than reading. However, solutions that have proven effective for reading could become a role model for math, the other key discipline. "We have a science of math just like there is a science of reading. They are analogous. We just need to get people going," said Sarah Powell. This new math movement revives the old battle between the advocates of step-by-step procedures led by teachers' instructions and their opponents who favor student discovery and a more conceptual approach to mathematics.

Powell and her co-authors cited 115 studies to support their views, highlighting common misconceptions about teaching math. They think inquiry-based learning, in which kids are encouraged to discover answers independently, is often not the best way to teach math. They think that kids don't need to understand math concepts before they can learn calculations, that explicit and direct instruction is effective, that forcing students to struggle with math problems they can't solve is unhelpful, and that regular timed tests help teachers measure students' progress.

Lastly, Sarah Powell says her group is not advocating for a return to rote instruction. They emphasize that the science of math shows kids learn best when new topics start with direct explanations including formulas alongside concepts. For his part, Jon Star, a professor of math education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that the science of math isn't as clear as the science of reading. And that we still don't understand much about the best ways to teach it. In any case, it seems that experts, teachers, and parents are heading for a new round in the math wars in America... as in many other countries around the world.

Picture: SUMUP Tournament (Arcany Early Learning Foundation)