What's missing from today's school math, and particularly, from middle school math?
Definitions, precision, and coherence.
Without a proper introduction to definitions, students don't get clarity in what a math statement is and what it is not. They don't get a sense of the abstractness of it. Without having actual definitions, they don't learn to work with definitions, so they can never learn how to use them to derive new things that are true of "all" of a given set. Without definitions, they cannot learn to REASON about mathematics because they have no basis for reasoning.
Without precision, students cannot make clear, unambiguous statements. They are not able to properly manipulate the symbols they are given, and they can't even say what their manipulations refer to and what they do not refer to. (As Wu says, In the same way that we do not ask “Is he six feet tall?” without saying who “he” is, we do not write down xyzrstuvw = a + 2b + 3cdefghijklmn
without ﬁrst specifying what a, b, . . . , z stand for either (this is
an equality between what? Two random collections of symbols??
What does it mean??))
Without coherence, math is a series of unrelated facts designed merely to trick students. Without coherence, math is just a test of how big your working memory can be when you can never integrate any understanding together. There is no notion that the results you get follow from other results. Reasoning can't exist without coherence.
The reason SAT math feels so "tricky" to so many students is because they were never taught math in a coherent, reasoned way with definitions and precision. So the test seems to bejust a set of tricks designed to "catch" you, as opposed to a test of how what you know relates to other things you already know. That is why it seems to just test working memory. That is why it seems to have so much associative interference. The reason is because you were never taught that math was reasoned, with every piece of it following from the other pieces, a seamless whole that reinforced the same truths from a zillion different directions. And you were never taught what it meant.