Trainwreck: The Teach to One Math Experiment in Mountain View, CA Is a Cautionary Tale About the Perils of Digital Math Education


Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I live in Sil­i­con Val­ley, which oper­ates on the assump­tion that there’s no prob­lem that tech­nol­o­gy can’t solve. It suf­fus­es our cul­ture here, and some­times we pay the price for this tech­no­crat­ic utopi­anism. Case in point: Right now, I’m send­ing my kid to a pub­lic school in Moun­tain View, CA–the home of Google–where the admin­is­tra­tors have upend­ed the entire sixth grade math pro­gram. Last August, they abol­ished the tra­di­tion­al math program–you know, where stu­dents get to sit in a class­room and learn from a trained and qual­i­fied math teacher. And instead the admin­is­tra­tors asked stu­dents to learn math main­ly from a com­put­er pro­gram called Teach to One. Run by a ven­ture called New Class­roomsTeach to One promis­es to let each stu­dent engage in “per­son­al­ized learn­ing,” where a com­put­er pro­gram gauges each stu­den­t’s knowl­edge of math, then con­tin­u­al­ly cus­tomizes the math edu­ca­tion that stu­dents receive. It all sounds like a great con­cept. Bill Gates has sup­pos­ed­ly called it the “Future of Math Edu­ca­tion.” But the rub is this: Teach to One does­n’t seem ready for the present. And our kids are pay­ing the price.

A new arti­cle fea­tured in our local paper, The Moun­tain View Voice, out­lines well the prob­lems that stu­dents and par­ents have expe­ri­enced with the Teach to One pro­gram. I would encour­age any par­ent or edu­ca­tor inter­est­ed in the pit­falls of these “inno­v­a­tive” math pro­grams to give the arti­cle a good look. (Update: The Moun­tain View Voice has done a series of excel­lent arti­cles on the Teach to One exper­i­ment in Moun­tain View and all that went wrong. They’re all list­ed below.)

If you read the arti­cle, here’s what you will learn. The Moun­tain View school dis­trict appar­ent­ly bud­get­ed $521,000 to imple­ment and oper­ate this new-fan­gled math pro­gram in two local schools (Gra­ham and Crit­ten­den Mid­dle Schools). Had they ade­quate­ly beta test­ed the pro­gram before­hand, the school dis­trict might have dis­cov­ered that Teach to One teach­es math–we have observed–in a dis­joint­ed, non-lin­ear and often errat­ic fash­ion that leaves many stu­dents baf­fled and dis­en­chant­ed with math. The pro­gram con­tains errors in the math it teach­es. Par­ents end up hav­ing to teach kids math at home and make up for the pro­gram’s defi­cien­cies. And all the while, the math teach­ers get essen­tial­ly rel­e­gat­ed to “man­ag­ing the [Teach to One] pro­gram rather than to pro­vid­ing direct instruc­tion” them­selves.

By Octo­ber, many par­ents start­ed to reg­is­ter indi­vid­ual com­plaints with the school dis­trict. By Decem­ber, 180 par­ents signed a let­ter metic­u­lous­ly out­lin­ing the many prob­lems they found with the Teach to One pro­gram. (You can read that let­ter here.) When the school lat­er con­duct­ed a sur­vey on Teach to One (review it here), 61% of the par­ents “said they do not believe the pro­gram match­es the needs of their chil­dren,” and test scores show that this crop of sixth graders has mas­tered math con­cepts less well than last year’s. (Note: there was a big decrease in the num­ber of kids who say they love math, and con­verse­ly a 413% increase in the num­ber of kids who say they hate math.) Giv­en the mediocre eval­u­a­tion, the par­ents have asked for one sim­ple thing–the option to let their kids learn math in a tra­di­tion­al set­ting for the remain­der of the year, until it can be demon­strat­ed that Teach to One can deliv­er bet­ter results. (Teach to One would ide­al­ly con­tin­ue as a small­er pilot, where the kinks would get worked out.) So far the school dis­trict, head­ed by Ayindé Rudolph, has con­tin­ued to cham­pi­on the Teach to One pro­gram in fine­ly-spun bureau­crat­ic let­ters that effec­tive­ly dis­re­gard parental con­cerns and actu­al data points. But the schools have now agreed to let stu­dents spend 5o% of their time learn­ing math with Teach to One, and the oth­er 50% learn­ing math from a qual­i­fied teacher. Why the imprac­ti­cal half mea­sure? I can only spec­u­late.

I post­ed this so that inter­est­ed par­ents and edu­ca­tors, wher­ev­er you live, can be pru­dent and thought­ful when it comes to adopt­ing com­put­er-dri­ven math pro­grams. Per­haps you can learn some­thing from our cau­tion­ary tale. Do your research, run a con­trolled pilot, and make sure the prod­uct is actu­al­ly a good fit for your school. Again, I would encour­age you to read the fine arti­cle in The Moun­tain View Voice, the par­ents’ let­ter out­lin­ing the observed defi­cien­cies in the Teach to One pro­gram, and the eye-open­ing sur­vey results on Teach to One.

Update: It was announced on Jan­u­ary 12 that the Moun­tain View will dis­con­tin­ue the Teach to One math pilot effec­tive imme­di­ate­ly.  Patron­iz­ing­ly, New Class­rooms has attrib­uted the scrap­ping of the pilot to a com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem. “There was a sub­set of par­ents of high­er-achiev­ing stu­dents who didn’t ful­ly under­stand how Teach to One oper­at­ed and how much it ben­e­fit­ed their chil­dren,” Joel Rose is quot­ed as say­ing in The Wall Street Jour­nal. Once again, I’d refer you back to the actu­al data col­lect­ed by our schools. It speaks for itself.

Great Arti­cles by The Moun­tain View Voice: Moun­tain View’s local paper has done some excel­lent report­ing on this fias­co. I would encour­age you to read them all.

This sto­ry has also received cov­er­age from The Wall Street Jour­nal and Edsurge

Update 2019: It sounds like anoth­er Teach-to-One pilot in Eliz­a­beth, NJ has its own issues. Read here and here.

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Comments (6)
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  • JM ivler says:

    As a tech­nol­o­gist who has devel­oped a pro­gram that uses a patent­ed Socrat­ic tutor to teach math from pre-alge­bra through pre-cal­cu­lus I know the pit­falls. We test­ed on over 4000 stu­dents before we released it. We also don’t claim to stand alone. We are a tool. We are also free. You may want to tell your math teach­ers to look at so they can add our free prod­uct to their tool­box.

  • Sam says:

    Won­der­ful solu­tion. Jist replace one cr@ppy piece of soft­ware with anoth­er, iden­ti­cal­ly cr@ppy.

  • Stephen Downes says:

    I checked the source of the train wreck image on Wiki­me­dia Com­mons and it says ‘author unknown’. So I’m won­der­ing how you came to post an attri­bu­tion to Marie Maye. I’m assum­ing you are using an attri­bu­tion script of some sort.…?

  • John Kelley says:

    Years ago while liv­ing in El Paso, Texas we were switched to “new math” in the sixth grade. I could pass tests but nev­er under­stood it. Years lat­er, in the days before cal­cu­la­tors and com­put­ers, my job involved a lot of hand cal­cu­lat­ed math. This final­ly got me com­fort­able with math — again.

    Then, while he was in grade school, my broth­er who is eight years younger was taught every class with half of the class in Eng­lish and half in Span­ish. Some “bril­liant” aca­d­e­m­ic decid­ed that the kids would pay atten­tion and learn the oth­er lan­guage. Ter­ry said he did home­work for oth­er class­es, read com­ic books, and gen­er­al­ly ignored the Span­ish part of the class­es.

    “In the­o­ry there is not dif­fer­ence between the­o­ry and prac­tice. In prac­tice there is.” ~~ Yogi Berra So, why don’t these aca­d­e­mics who come up with these “great the­o­ries” test them before inflict­ing them on our kids? They might learn the truth in Yogi Berra’s quote.

  • jm ivler says:


    their soft­ware cost the school dis­trict $500K and attempts to replace the edu­ca­tor in the class­room. is free and is a tool to allow the edu­ca­tor to intro­duce con­cepts with a Socrat­ic tutor before they go over them in class, because it’s eas­i­er to teach a stu­dent who has been intro­duced to the con­cepts with hands-on oper­a­tions than it is to teach them some­thing they have nev­er seen before. The $500K soft­ware solu­tion attempt­ed to run the class with the edu­ca­tor being a tool for the soft­ware, the *free* solu­tion is a tool for the edu­ca­tor who is run­ning their class.

    My guess is that before you typed your insight­ful com­men­tary you did­n’t even both­er to go look at the prod­uct at It’s open minds like yours that are the future of a bril­liant edu­ca­tion sys­tem. (sor­ry, but peo­ple who say A is bad because it’s soft­ware there­fore B is bad because it’s soft­ware when A and B are clear­ly two very dif­fer­ent tools make me a bit snarky).

  • Bruce Lance says:

    Inter­est­ing com­men­tary. Is this a teacher by chance writ­ing this arti­cle? I sus­pect a neg­a­tive bias after hear­ing pos­i­tive com­ments on this TTO pro­gram from anoth­er teacher.

    A good friend uses Teach to One in her Oak­land pub­lic schools math class­es and she says its fan­tas­tic. She has kids from 4th to 10th grade lev­el­ing the same class.…. and the old school teach­ing just does­n’t work. The smart kids get dragged down to the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor. The slow learn­ers just can’t keep up and get dis­en­fran­chised.

    This TTO pro­gram adjusts les­son plan to their level.….and then when they test out they move on- genius.

    It does sep­a­rate the smart kids from the poor learners.…as the smart kids learn faster and advance quick­ly with the below avg learn­ers strug­gling. It would be easy to adjust the program/curricula if it were “Dis­joint­ed”.

    There is no doubt that soft­ware based learn­ing is the future.….makes sense.…software is tai­lor made for learn­ing.

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