Lower Merion Fifth Graders Prepare for College Now

Am I smarter than them? The new "CPM" math program proves I'm not

I’ve spent a lot of time this winter trying to figure out if I’m smarter than a fifth grader. So far the results are not looking good. It seems that our school district has chosen to adopt a cutting-edge, trendy new math program called “College Preparatory Math,” a.k.a. CPM. Yes, in fifth grade in Lower Merion, you are apparently already preparing for college. No pressure though. And, in spite of my B.A., I may no longer qualify for college with this program. I just hope my alma mater doesn’t find out and take my degree back.

[SIGNUP]CPM is a Berkeley invention that I imagine a bunch of people who smoke a lot of pot came up with. The textbook for CPM is all words. If you flip through the math book, it’s astonishing that you don’t see any numbers. Every question is wrapped up in lots of language with no rote learning at all. Just because rote learning worked for all the previous generations and is the only reason anybody knows what 7 x 8 equals, does not mean that it should still work in this day and age, is the prevailing wisdom. No, for the next generation, children should be learning all abstract concepts in an entirely group-work environment. Fifth graders are now expected to be total self-starters and mature enough to stay focused in groups while discussing really difficult theoretical problems with multiple methods of finding solutions. Anybody else see what could go wrong? I’m going to take a wild guess that the CPM inventors did not have children.

A major CPM shortcoming is that it favors children with strong language skills. Making math all about words must be demoralizing for a lot of boys in particular who might typically excel in math but not language arts. And for the children who learn best in a structured environment, like mine, forget it. This is designed to be like a modern collaborative office setting. Every day is casual Friday. Except we’re talking about 10-year-olds, not ambitious ad execs vying for the Nike account.

CPM has taken over our household. Until now I’ve been kind of an absentee parent at school. I am always at the parent-teacher meetings, open houses and occasionally volunteer at class parties, but otherwise I’m not a particularly involved parent. Most of the other mothers, all of whom seem to know each other really well, had no idea who I was when I passed them in the halls. This year is another matter. I get called in to see the math teacher so often, like a bad little kid being sent to the principal, that those other moms are my new buddies. I don’t even know what to say to the very dedicated math teacher, who is burdened with this program, since I’m doing as badly at CPM as she is. My daughter tested high enough in math to qualify for the accelerated program, but they changed to CPM and now she’s floundering. And when one of us flounders in our house it feels like the whole family flounders. CPM is now our regular family weeknight activity. I’m not sure who is doing worse in math, my daughter, my husband (who has an honors math degree) or me. Really, it’s that bad.

I looked up the CPM program online to find some anecdotal statistics about its success. The first thing I found was a math teacher’s unscientific study showing her findings when comparing traditional rote math to CPM. The CPM results were abysmal. Unfortunately our school district has invested a lot of money and teacher training into this program, so it’s probably going to take a few years before our little guinea pigs demonstrate solidly lousy PSSA performances and Lower Merion throws the CPM books in the trash, separates the desks and goes back to the good old 1 x 1 equals 1. On the upside, we’re doing something together as a family: yelling, crying and pulling our hair out. At least we can feel secure in the knowledge that she’s preparing for college in elementary school. It’s only eight years away, after all. Hopefully we won’t have to go too. Maybe when she graduates she can go outside and play.