Reading War Meets Math War

By Sharon Hillestad

On September 12, 1986, a friend, Karin Mesa, and I organized an Educational Extravaganza. The event was open to parents and teachers interested in gaining more knowledge about reading and math instruction.

The event took place in Minnesota. We invited several authors of phonics programs as well as Marian Hines and Stan Hartzel.

Marian Hines was a retired school teacher and the president of Reading Reform Foundation. She was knowledgeable about the history of reading instruction. (This is a subject that I have written about on this blog and will soon be publishing a book about.)

Stan Hartzel had a PHD in Mathematics Education and at the time was the senior editor of a series of elementary math textbooks published by John Saxon.

Before meeting Stan Hartzel, I did not know that math instruction shared a similar history to reading instruction.

Stan researched 144 elementary math textbooks starting from the time of Thomas Jefferson up to modern times. Then he wrote his thesis for his doctorate in math education. He documented that math textbooks had been altered in each revision after 1923. They did not get better and better. No, they got worse and worse.

The result of these changes made it more difficult to learn math. As a result, only a limited number of people would develop higher math skills.

Many of my own students over the past many decades have expressed that math was hard for them and that they were not smart enough to do math well. I felt the same way when I was in elementary and highschool.

Stan and Marian met for the first time at our Minnesota conference. Although each was well aware of problems in their own field, they were stunned to discover that reading and math instruction both started to degrade in 1923—after school became compulsory to age 16.

The Parallel History of the Reading War and the Math War

At dinner after the conference, Marian and Stan, talked for hours and compared how literacy and math instruction had been changed. Here are some of the points they found in common in the instruction of the two subjects:

  • Drilling basic skills in both subjects was discouraged because it would be “harmful”.
  • Spending lots of time teaching minor functions and brushing over vital functions—this caused a dumbing down in both reading and math instruction.
  • Not teaching either subject in a logical sequential manner causes students to think they cannot learn. This is how learning disabilities get established.

It was after this conference that Saxon added a phonics program to their math curriculum. Now they knew that all students weren’t being taught to read either.

Marian Hines left Minnesota in shock. She had discovered that there wasn’t just a literacy crisis. It was so much bigger.

Stan Hartzel said that “if a foreign country wanted to destroy us, they could do it by destroying our math.” But it didn’t take a foreign power. This was entirely an inside job.