IN an eighth-grade class at Jefferson Middle School in Madison,
Wis., students tackle a problem that seems more likely to land on
the desk of a city planner.
Here's the dilemma: A reclaimed landfill is being rezoned. One
party wants to build high-rise residences on the land, while
another group is interested in single-family homes. Which is the
best decision, and how should the plans be carried out?
The class is math. But it's not the typical American math class
where teachers drill students on arithmetic problems and students
must memorize and master abstract concepts from a textbook. In this
class, which is serving as a pilot project for math-curricula
reform, eighth-graders are using real-life examples to help them
learn algebra, linear programming, and how to graph and plot data.
During this hour, for instance, students provide examples of
feasible and unfeasible building plans and plot the area of each
house or high-rise in a coordinate system.
"Students see how math applies in the real world," says teacher
Jane Beebe. "Those who are not good at math can see how to use it."
Making mathematics relate to real life is one of Thomas
Romberg's goals for schools across the country. Dr. Romberg is the
director of the National Center for Research in Mathematical
Sciences Education (NCRMSE) at the University of Wisconsin/Madison.
The center is helping to develop new math curricula and materials
for grades 5 through 8. Jefferson Middle School and four other area
schools are participating in this project.
Why change the way math is taught in United States schools?
Romberg gives several reasons. First, studies over the past 10
years have shown that the US lags behind other countries in math
proficiency - a gap experts cite as one of the reasons for its
decline in the global marketplace. In order for the US to remain
economically competitive, schools need to change how they teach
math, he says. Shifts in technology and in how math is used also
require that mathematics be taught differently, he says.
Since the mid-1800s the traditional math curriculum in the US
has included eight years of arithmetic, a year of algebra, and a
year of geometry. But according to Romberg, American schoolchildren
are learning math that is hundreds of years out of date.
"The arithmetic we teach through eighth grade is really the
arithmetic of the 15th century ... the algebra is from the 17th
century, and the geometry? That's pretty much 3rd century BC,"
Romberg says. Much of what is taught are concepts and procedures
that don't always apply to a world that increasingly requires more
knowledge in statistics or graphical data, he adds.
The NCRMSE's efforts to restructure math education are part of a
large reform movement that is gaining momentum around the country.
The movement grew in response to "A Nation at Risk," the National
Commission on Excellence in Education's 1983 publication that urged
the mathematics community to rethink the teaching and learning of
The NCRMSE's purpose is to provide a research base for this
national reform movement. The center started five years ago and is
funded by the US Department of Education.
Romberg and colleagues developed the project to test new math
curricula in local schools after they looked at how other countries
teach math. They decided to model the curricula after the Dutch
system, because they liked the math materials and examples teachers
in The Netherlands use. …