Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

THE MATH WARS - Curricular Controversy in the Math Wars: A Battle without Winners

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

THE MATH WARS - Curricular Controversy in the Math Wars: A Battle without Winners

Article excerpt

Despite the difficulties in designing, testing, and marketing new mathematics curricula, the need for significant improvement in student learning requires us to overcome these difficulties, Mr. Reys notes. All interested parties should stop trying to defend the past and work together to improve children's mathematics education for the future.

THE continuing controversy regarding standards-based mathematics curricula developed with support from the National Science Foundation has produced a range of reactions from mathematicians, mathematics educators, parents, and other interested parties. The recent clashes in the California "Math Wars" remind us that the battle continues to consume much energy and emotion that could be used for better purposes.1 Differences of opinion with regard to what is important to learn and how it should be taught are nothing new in mathematics education.2 And at the heart of the discussion are the written curricula (i.e., the textbooks) that American students use in their mathematics classes. This is the issue I want to reflect on here.

As a mathematics educator old enough to have taught from several books produced by the School Mathematics Study Group (one of the "new math" curricula in the 1960s), I am now in my fifth decade of witnessing the continuing evolution of mathematics curricula. I have also been a co- author of a successful K-8 mathematics textbook series, which gave me firsthand experience with some of the challenges involved in developing a comprehensive mathematics program within the highly competitive, market-driven U.S. publishing environment.

During my career in higher education, I have had the opportunity to live in several countries, such as Mexico, Japan, and Sweden, where my children attended local schools. These adventures provided a rare but valuable opportunity to learn something about schools and curriculum materials in other countries. Today, I am involved in the National Science Foundation Show-Me Project ( that is dedicated to the dissemination and implementation of standards-based math curricula for middle schools.

Together, these experiences have provided professional growth and shaped my knowledge base. I share them with readers so that they will know the perspective from which I now reflect on the current controversies surrounding the reform of the mathematics curriculum.

In many ways, the United States is unique in its approach to education. My international perspective has enabled me to see both the virtues and the dangers of some of our traditional practices. For example, the United States is the only industrialized country that does not use the metric system, and it is one of the few countries that teaches separate courses in algebra and geometry. This means that curricular recommendations regarding the metric system made by Thomas Jefferson and included in a 1923 report by the Mathematical Association of America, titled The Reorganization of Mathematics in Secondary Education, have yet to be implemented. Clearly, significant curricular change is difficult and slow. Major pedagogical change in mathematics teaching presents even more challenges.vel

DEVELOPING Mathematics Textbooks

The mathematics textbook market in the U.S. is vast, and a number of factors facing the industry make seeking improvements very difficult. Among these are the following: 1) there is no national curriculum; 2) every state has its own state frameworks that influence what mathematical content is taught and when; 3) about half of the states are "adoption states," in which state committees review and approve textbooks; 4) the rest are "open states," in which each district, or sometimes school, chooses its own textbooks; 5) most districts adopt new mathematics books within a five- to seven-year cycle, but there is no single time (month or year) when all schools are adopting textbooks; 6) the availability of technology, including calculators and computers, varies greatly, so assuming the existence of a basic core of technology across all schools is risky; and 7) a serious shortage of certified mathematics teachers and a lack of deep mathematical knowledge among many who do teach limit the types of mathematics curricula that can be developed. …

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