CPM Math vs. Traditional Math

Update 9/8/07: Here’s a great article on the state of K-12 math education in the U.S. and how any constructive debate on math instruction gets squelched by politics.

Last year Hubby and I attended a math orientation to learn about the differences between two types of math instruction offered at our local high school: CPM (College Preparatory Math) vs. “traditional” math.

They passed out a flier which I have transcribed below. I’ve also added my initial, uninformed, I-Was-An-English-Major opinion:

How to Choose Math

Traditional CPM Bonnie’s Uninformed Initial Opinion
Students take notes, receive direction, and repeat new skills as modeled by the teacher. Students work in groups to discover new ideas through carefully directed problems. CPM learning sounds dynamic and fun! But that traditional math sounds BORING.
Students solve problems that are usually more skills oriented Students develop strong problem-solving skills. Students don’t develop strong problem-solving skills in traditional math? Wow! Who knew?
Students usually work independently answering questions posed in the textbook Students work in groups exchanging ideas, making comparisons, drawing conclusions and justifying their work The CPM classroom sounds like a heckuva lot more fun! (Those poor traditional students.)
Students ask questions of the teacher and use the texbook as the main source of information Students have access to group members when questions arise and seek teacher’s help as needed CPM students don’t really need a textbook—heck, even the teacher sounds secondary
Student assessment usually reflects only individual achievement Student assessment reflects both individual and group achievement Traditional testing seems kind of inadequate
Quiet, structured classroom Active, involved classroom Quiet, structured learning—that’s bad, right? I mean, there seemed to be a pattern here…

I raised my hand and asked how CPM students did in SATs in comparison to traditional math students. The CPM rep said, “Great question! CPM students do as well or better than traditional students! Any other questions?”

It all sounded good, but I was having a problem with a CPM concept that sounded like my kid’s individual achievement wasn’t as an important marker as his group’s achievement. Maybe aiming for higher group achievement is a more noble goal, but how on earth were they going to manage parent-teacher conferences?

TEACHER: Mrs. Brown, the entire class has improved significantly!

PARENT: But what about my Johnny? Has he improved?

TEACHER: Hmmm, not really. But the class as a whole has significantly improved! Significantly!

I decided to leave it up to Hubby, an engineer who obviously took a lot more math than I ever did and therefore was better qualified to judge. Turns out he had quite a bit to say about CPM, namely:

  1. The creators of CPM math obviously never earned paychecks Out In The Real World, and
  2. CPM sounded like a huge crock of you-know-what.

So we enrolled Tiger in a “traditional” geometry class. Surprisingly, some elements of CPM still managed to creep into Tiger’s “traditional” math class. Twice he got to take a group test, which (in case you don’t know) is conducted as follows:

  1. The classroom is divided into groups of four
  2. Every student is given a test
  3. The four students in each group work on the test together and come up with a consensus for each answer
  4. The group finishes and turns in their tests
  5. The teacher collects the four tests, staples them together, and then grades only the page on the top and the page on the bottom and gives every member of the group that one grade.

I called up a math professor friend of mine and asked her to explain the general educational theory behind group testing. She said, “There’s a lot of theory behind group testing, but honestly? It boils down to this: the teacher only has to grade the equivalent of one test instead of four.”

She also said the theory behind CPM in general is an idealistic one, difficult to teach well consistently in all schools and perhaps not appropriate for all learning styles.

This year I did a little more research and no longer have to rely soley on Hubby’s judgement. But in my humble, I-Was-An-English-Major opinion, CPM is a very large crock of educational you-know-what. At least for my kids.

11 Replies to “CPM Math vs. Traditional Math”

  1. I was not a mathematics major in college; however, I am now an educator for San Diego Unified School District. While I am on vacation, I am reflecting upon ways that I have taught mathematics to my students and looked deep inside myself, trying to understand how I myself learned math, some some sole searching if you will. What I have found out is that when I was in 7th grade, my school adopted CPM. In short, CPM did not work for me. I was on the right “track” in math taking Algebra 1 in 8th grade. From what I remember, the group tests were pretty much a joke in that only 1 (maybe 2) student’s thinking appeared on the assessment. I remember my school raving about CPM and it being new, innovative and fun (supposedly). My group aced the tests, but I did horribly on the tests that were given independently. What I do remember is the math teacher passing out the independent tests from highest grade to lowest grade which was a major embarrassment and sitting around the whole year confused. I also remember not being able to go anywhere before, during or after school to ask for help–I don’t remember a forum where students felt comfortable asking questions to the teacher. Working in groups, I asked questions to my peers, but did not felt as supported in CPM math than in traditional math. I took pre-algebra the previous year, taught traditionally and earned a B average. My 8th grade year, I “earned” an F in CMP Algebra 1. I remember always feeling left behind–I don’t think my teacher knew me as a learner or probably thought I was not a serious student. I repeated Algebra 1 in 9th grade and by then I was turned off by math yet managed to pass the class with a B average. The following years (10th, 11th, and 12th grades) I took Geometry, Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus all of which were taught traditionally and all of which I earned above average grades, thanks to developing good study habits, tutors and my teachers’ determination to stay before and after school to help students who needed extra help. In my opinion, it took me 2-3 years after being lost in the wind by CPM to become a successful math student. Perhaps the realization of my struggle to overcome 8th grade math will help me to become a better teacher.

  2. I’m in middle school and do CPM math. How I describe it: I HATE HATE HAAAAATE CPM MATH!!! Sure working in groups CAN be fun, but in my group I do all the work and the rest of the group gets credit! CPM math is sickeningly easy. I did this stuff last year in elementary school when I worked ahead. It’s basiclly a review and, you can’t work ahead. The only gaad thing is my teacher lets us review our homework answers as a team and if we all disagree we look at an answer sheet for that problem. My rating on CPM is a 1. What happened to math being simple and not so complex????

  3. My international school in Korea turned to CPM math this year (2013)… why? Because a 6th grade math teacher wanted to get her Master’s Degree in Math and one of the requirements was revamping a school’s math system. Truthfully, as being from California, I know CPM was rejected by the CA State Gov and all we’re doing now is 5rd grade stuff like learning about “y= mx+b” In 8th grade! What happened to the part about “being challenging and fun”? Recently, I got a pretty low grade on the Chapter 1 math test because it was a group test and someone decided to go solo and write different answers than the ones we agreed on. Yes, the future jobs are more about group work but should we implement this on subjects like tests, where grades matter whether or not you fail the class? Seriously, I don’t want to be retaking Algebra I in 9th grade because I learned nothing in 8th grade.

  4. I was actually trying to find out something about the textbook and I came across this. I’m in 8th grade and I have advance math, honors algebra with cpm and my high school basically runs the class and sends it to my middle school. We use the team stuff but throw our own twist onto it. Yes we work in teams which is the worst part because sometimes you just get the team that doesn’t work well together and instead work alone, my team at the moment is kinda that way. But if you don’t understand something you are suppose to ask the teacher on your own. And we don’t use Cpm’s tests the high school writes our team tests and sends them over. We take the team test then a week later we take the individual that the high school also sends over. This is my first year in advance math, I skipped 8th grade math.

    Last year in 7th grade math we were test piloting Cpm so we could match to the high schools curriculum. This was exactly why we test a book before we buy it. I had a pretty bad experience with it, but I like everyone else was pretty thrown off. A big part of that was because the middle school decided to use cpm’s tests during the pilot and I don’t think we got individuals. The team tests were weighted too high and were way too long to finish in the time the book gave. So like the high school already did the middle school decided to write little 20 point team tests and 100 point individuals. And the middle school teachers decided to switch the teams more.

    Overall I don’t really mind CPM, I’m not affected by the methods very much. I skipped a grade so late so it’s pretty amazing I pull a 93% test average. I found holt way too easy I went from a 100% student in 7th grade traditional to a 90% in 9th grade cpm. I’m fine with that.

  5. Midnight Hacker – I don’t see where CPM was rejected by the CA Governor…Would be useful information to have in order to persuade my school district to reject CPM. Thanks.

  6. I earned a Computer Science degree from an accredited university. I have taken engineering-level courses in integral calculus, combinatorics, continuous distribution statistics, and linear algebra, to name a few. This means I’ve taken (and forgotten) more math than 99% of people in the world. This year our children’s school began using this CPM math trash and it is terrible. It’s like English majors (no offense, I love English curriculum) attempting to verbosely explain math in the hopes that students who struggle with math concepts might get it. I suspect the result is slower learning and unnecessary confusion for kids who are mathematically inclined.

  7. Currently a junior taking Algebra II (my worst subject is math), and it’s the CPM program. What can I say about CPM? What can I say… What I can say is that it is a horrible form of teaching, as almost everyone in my class, including my teacher, is so frustrated and angry that we just complain and moan because no one knows what they’re doing. You know where else people learn social skills? I don’t know… school perhaps? Why are they trying to force social skills in the class that literally needs the least amount of social skills in the curriculum?

    Another big issue I have with this program is that it tries to force everyone into one single form of learning. Some people take notes, others prefer homework, some like lectures, while others utilize online videos to teach themselves. This program however negates most ways for children to learn and instead forcing them to rely on other children who learn in different ways. This means that no one is understanding the concepts, as the teachers are relying on the students to teach themselves, and the students try to rely on the book, but the book forces them into this uncomfortable form of “learning” that it attempts to portray.

    It confuses all of us and it angers me because I’m failing tests because I’m not understanding what the teacher is trying to say! There’s been multiple times where the entire Algebra II department’s students (including myself) had to retake a test because most of us failed it the first time through. That’s a sign that the program is broken.

  8. Im in grade 5 and im doing cpm and my teacher just ignores me and doesnt help me and didnt give me a team so its just me and cpm is so dumb it makes me feel dumb and i get zeros on tests and team evaluations

  9. I am currently taking precalculus with CPM at my high school. This is the first CPM class I have ever taken and has also been the worst math class experience I have ever had. I am a good student who has maintained good grades and performed above average on math in previous math classes, so the problem doesn’t lie in my work habits.
    To begin, there are no lectures at all, that part has been removed entirely. I work in groups and everyone is driven by self-interest. No one in my group wants to help me and my teacher doesn’t want to do one-on-one since he believes I should depend on my peers for help. I, thus, receive no help. I have had to hire a tutor, quit my part time job, instrument, and sport to find more time to self-teach everything since neither my group, nor my teacher help me. My group doesn’t explain how they get answers so I just know the answer but not how to get it. I have never failed a test in my life until this class. I am a good student, I am good at math, but these methods do NOT work on me. I DO NOT LEARN WITH CPM. I am so frustrated everyday when I do homework or have to go to the class. The textbook is a useless resource with no examples or directions to help individuals solve problems. If you or your child don’t work well in groups or are visual learners, please consider your options, because I guarantee they will struggle in this class. By far the worst and most ineffective program I’ve ever encountered. I am so disgusted.

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