THE MATHEMATICS TEACHERS at North Dallas High School - a littered, overcrowded campus near one of the Texas city's major freeways - were forced into an unnerving adjustment in the fall of 1990.
For five years, the school had experienced a mathematics boom. Test scores had doubled in some categories. The size of advanced classes had tripled. Determined teachers using a drab but dependable textbook series by John Saxon, a publisher in Oklahoma, had found that rigorous class work and constant review appealed to their disadvantaged Hispanic and black students.
But in June 1990, the math department chairman, a former football coach named Charlie Hodge, retired. Key school district administrators were eager to kill the North Dallas math program, which they considered old-fashioned. They no longer needed to worry about resistance from the popular Hodge, so they removed the Saxon textbook series from North Dallas and all other schools and replaced it with a colorful series of new, thick books.
The new texts, written by a University of Chicago team and published by Scott, Foresman, reflected the latest research on mathematics education. They were full of vivid pictures and relevant examples.
Unfortunately, at least at North Dallas High, they proved to be poison in the classroom, one more sign of what some educators have come to believe is a disabling split between the nation's educational reform leaders and many of its classroom teachers.
The researchers, education school deans, principals and affluent school department heads who lead educational reform want mathematics lessons to be colorful, engaging and connected to technology and problem-solving. They distrust the more traditional methods, such as review and practice, and encourage teachers to develop "critical thinking."
That puts them at odds with North Dallas teachers like Tom Taylor, who found that some common-sense review methods worked especially well with his disadvantaged students. The reformers are also out of sync with mavericks like Saxon, who insists that teachers limit their lectures to 15 minutes in each class and spend their time helping individual students do exercises.
North Dallas students said they liked Saxon's books once they grew accustomed to their rhythms. …