Modern School Mathematics

By Ediger, Marlow | College Student Journal, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Modern School Mathematics

Ediger, Marlow, College Student Journal

There was much enthusiasm when the phrase "Modern School Mathematics" was coined shortly after the 1958 National Defense Education Act was passed. Many federally funded study groups such as the The Greater Cleveland Mathematics Project, The School Mathematics Study Group, as well as the The University of Illinois Arithmetic Project came into being. University mathematicians were employed to provide leadership and innovations into the mathematics curriculum. Mathematics textbooks were soon revised in terms of recommendations from the above named study groups. Schools ordered approved mathematics, science, and foreign language teaching materials. If approved by the state, the school district paid one half and the federal government paid the other one half. Many teachers received their master's degrees in mathematics or science through federally funded stipends. Teachers received university credit and stipends for attending approved classes, courses, and workshops in mathematics. This was the Golden Age of Education. It sounded as if this was the cure all for an improved mathematics curriculum.

Presently, criticisms in secondary teaching are just as great as it was in 1958. The criticisms are quite similar. The innovations recommended by federally funded study groups has had little impact in teaching mathematics in particular. The high school level of schooling receives rather continuous criticism, These criticisms are quite obvious when reading professional journal articles. Authors of these articles frequently are far apart on what is being recommended for secondary students. The elementary level of schooling does not receive nearly as much criticism as compared to the secondary level. This is surprising since the elementary level of schooling provides the foundation for later school years. An interesting and provocative comment for elementary teachers in the US was made by Xiaoxia Newton (2007), who received her formal years of schooling in Mainland China:

* The K-5 institutional design must free elementary teachers from being generalists. They need to become experts in specific subjects and will need opportunities to practicing teaching a single subject curriculum, to reflect, and to continue developing their content knowledge.

* The K-12 institutional design must free both elementary and secondary teachers from spending every second of their time in teaching. The system must build in time for other equally important activities, such as lesson planning, collaborating with colleagues, grading student work, and provide high quality feedback to students. The allocation of time to teaching and to other activities must reflect the complex demands of teaching.

Criticisms of the High School Curriculum

Innovations coming from the 1958 NDEA funded groups and soon appearing in mathematics textbooks were numerous. Rote learning and memorization of subject matter was heavily criticized, then as well as now. Why is it so difficult to make changes in the high school curriculum?

Much emphasis by the federally funded NDEA study groups focused on selected key ideas. First, the structure of knowledge was to be identified, generally by university mathematics professors, and these were to be made available to teachers to be used in teaching. Then too, structural ideas from the federally funded study groups were incorporated into mathematics textbooks. Presently, the term "structural ideas" is not used; however salient ideas are identified, perhaps, as mandated objectives of instruction. The writer believes "structural ideas" should again be studied, not only by university mathematicians, but also with the involvement of elementary as well as secondary public school math teachers. By involving all three of these categories, the structural ideas may become more developmentally appropriate for implementation in the public schools. Parents, too, need to be involved since they felt frustrated in helping their offspring with homework in the new "modern school mathematics. …

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