Past Times

‘New math’ was an adjustment for Raleigh teachers in the ’60s

Governor Terry Sanford greets children from Merrick-Moore Elementary School in Durham in 1962.
Governor Terry Sanford greets children from Merrick-Moore Elementary School in Durham in 1962. State Archives of North Carolina

As many kids across the state are settling into the lazy days of summer, all thoughts of end-of-grade tests and Common Core are far behind them. But the burdens of modern day school children aren’t that different from their parents’ day. In the early 1960s, students and teachers were dealing with “new math.” Writer Kate Blackwell checked in on how it was going in the spring of 1965.

Betty Vann was determined not to do it.

“I will not. I see those second grade teachers killing themselves working with that ‘new math.’ Besides, what’s wrong with the way I’ve been teaching arithmetic for 14 years?”

That’s what she said last year. (“Oh, I was against it.”)

This year Miss Vann is teaching modern math to her third grade pupils at Aldert Root School here and the other day they were all multiplying four digits.

A third grader explained it to the reporter, “You take the place values. Then you …” He gave it up as a lost cause.

But he knew what he was talking about and this, say most teachers, is the innovation of the modern math. The children understand why they do what they do.…

Miss Vann’s initial apprehension and subsequent enthusiasm about new math is typical of most first and second grade teachers in Raleigh, all of whom are now teaching in the new program. If there is an exception, he or she could not be found.

Dr. Warren (Bill) Anderson, supervisor for Raleigh elementary schools, says, “Most every teacher who went into new math was doubtful, afraid, and anxious. Now they all feel it’s a better, stronger program for every child.”

New math really came about in Raleigh through the teachers themselves, Anderson said. They wanted to “do something about math.”

“They were frustrated in teaching because they had no sequential program. As it was, each teacher had a program of her own and many of them weren’t sure about the way they were teaching arithmetic.”

At the teachers’ suggestion, a curriculum study was begun.

The first workshop in modern math was held in the summer of 1962 by Dr. Olan Petty of Duke University. It was attended by 20 volunteer teachers. The next year, 49 first grade teachers in the city initiated the new math in the classroom.

“Many of us had had a course under Dr. Petty,” explained Miss Vann. “When he got up there and told us to forget everything he had taught us before, well, we just didn’t know what to think.

“Then he started talking about ‘commutative’ and ‘distributive’ and I wanted to say, listen, I’m just a third grade teacher. The terminology set me wild.”

On her first day in the classroom with modern math, “I was the black sheep,” Miss Vann said. All the children had studied modern math in the first and second grades.

“I got up there and explained ‘commutative’ and ‘distributive.’ Then I went to look at my notes and of course I’d gotten them backwards. I just erased that blackboard and told the children to get out their reading books. Math class was over.”

After that, Miss Vann said, she “wasn’t going to get caught short again.” She made an outline of each day’s lesson and propped it up on the side of the room where she could see it.

Now, after nearly a year with the new math, Miss Vann calls it “a challenge,” “the up-and-coming thing,” “marvelous.”

Its assets are its concreteness, not so much learning by rote, and a quicker pace than the traditional math approach.…

Buoyed by the enthusiasm of the teachers, new math is sweeping through Raleigh’s schools and headed toward the sixth grade. Dr. Anderson and other elementary school supervisors think that the State will adopt a modern math textbook for all schools in 1966.

“It will have to be modern math,” commented Anderson. “That’s all that’s coming out from the publishing companies.” The N&O May 23, 1965

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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