An evaluation of the CPM math curriculum: what can be done?


Mark Zhou

Many Amador math classes use CPM, ranging from Algebra 2 classes to Calculus.

Mark Zhou, AVT Staff Writer

Students taking honors or AP math courses at Amador, from Honors Algebra II to AP Calculus, are all familiar with CPM, the textbook they use during every class period. 

What is CPM

CPM stands for “College Preparatory Mathematics,” created around 1990 by a group of teachers in Sacramento to revolutionize math teaching. According to CPM’s official website, the curriculum was designed using three “research-based principles”: problem-based lessons, group interactions, and mastery of concepts over time. 

What do these principles mean in real life? The first two constitute the classwork: unlike traditional textbooks that offer definitions, explanations, and sample problems to teach a concept, CPM classwork consists solely of problems without sample solutions, and students are supposed to learn new concepts by solving these problems with their table groups. 

The “mastery of concepts over time” means that the homework is repetitive and cumulative, containing concepts introduced long ago. 

CPM at Amador Valley

Many students are appalled by the idea that everything they learn is through solving problems with no example solutions. They think that the principle of self-learning can be very unreliable because they are expected to arrive at most of the knowledge themselves with limited help from teachers. 

Richard Li (‘22), who used CPM last year for Calculus and is currently taking Multivariable Calculus using a traditional college textbook, prefers his current classwork style over CPM. 

“If I have to self-learn it, I can even get the formulas wrong. I figure out the formula proofs later with a traditional lecture-style class, and I still learn the concepts thoroughly,” said Li.

Math teachers assign CPM textbook problems for classwork and homework. Students use actual textbooks and online textbooks to access these problems.

The group interactions principle is especially unrealistic because, contrary to the CPM vision, many students simply don’t have the motivation to enthusiastically discuss and work with their group mates, who can all be confused over a concept and fail to help each other understand it. 

“If I can buy a set of textbooks and self-study calculus on my own, why am I attending it as a class in high school?” says Arthur Hua (‘22)

 The CPM vision of students collaborating to learn effectively is not realistic because, in reality, the learning process is individual. 

Students also aren’t big fans of the CPM’s homework problems, which reinforce ideas but, unfortunately, are also very repetitive. A new concept means the same types of problems involving the concept for the next several weeks or even months in the CPM homework sections. 

“I think that to some extent it was helpful because it allowed me to efficiently solve the problems that appeared on the AP exam and it allowed me to make less silly errors. The experience was not particularly enjoyable,” says Li.  

Regardless of the tediousness, CPM is almost a fool-proof curriculum that guarantees positive results. This is why teachers think that CPM is effective despite its flaws. 

“I don’t hate CPM as much as a lot of students do because it does require you to do some work in your head that forces you to understand the material,” says Amador Math Teacher Charles Snyder

Whether the tedious process is worth the result might be where the opinions of students, parents, and teachers differ the most. Parents and teachers might think that if students ultimately understand the concepts, the little boredom and repetitiveness are worth it because, after all, math is generally not seen as an exciting subject, and it is okay for students not to like math. 

On the other hand, students, myself included, still blame CPM for making math more tedious than it has to be. The enjoyment of the learning process is as important as the result; CPM takes the joy out of learning and is a very rigid and standardized way to ensure that everyone gets about the same fruits, consisting mostly of test scores, regardless of their level of motivation. 

It is not that the results aren’t worth it, but that these results can be achieved in better ways.

What can be done?

Although CPM has its faults, students can use outside resources to help bolster their math ability, such as YouTube or Khan Academy.

However, it is difficult to improve this situation. If the curriculum changed to foster interest for the unmotivated, it would, in turn, drag the motivated students behind. 

If the curriculum focuses on more higher-level concepts that show the intricacy and beauty of math, it would only benefit the motivated students. 

In the end, it is up to the student to use available resources, such as YouTube videos or online groups, and get the most out of them. 

Textbooks shouldn’t be depended upon because no textbook is enough if the student doesn’t actively try to gain a deep understanding of the material. Everyone prefers a slightly different way of learning, so they should strive to meet their own needs. 

CPM can absolutely be improved. Sometimes when doing homework, I personally want to edit the absurdly-worded questions with tedious calculations into something less dreadful. 

However, CPM is not as terrible as most students think and can be used appropriately, with outside resources, to guarantee mastery.