Mathematicians at Work

By Aboufadel, Edward F. | Academe, November/December 1998 | Go to article overview

Mathematicians at Work


Aboufadel, Edward F., Academe


THE SO-CALLED "MATH WARS" WAS ONLY ONE OF the professional issues that came up during the 1998 Joint Mathematics Meetings at which the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and the Mathematics Association of America (MAA) met with groups such as the Mathematics and Education Reform Forum (MER) and the Young Mathematicians Network (YMN). In an address to conference participants, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley expressed his concern about the recent fights over what and how mathematics is taught. He was, he told his audience, disturbed by these math wars, which he found neither "constructive nor productive," and he insisted that a truce be declared. California is a hotspot in the wars. Since 1994, curriculum materials based on the so-called "reformed math" have been used in the state's public schools. These materials place great emphasis on conceptual understanding and problem solving, with the goal of making students more independent learners. Critics complain that the new curriculum does not challenge students and fails to teach them mathematics. This disagreement has led to demonstrations at school board meetings, overwrought writings by syndicated columnists, and the firing of the director of the California State Department of Education.

The wars are occurring at many levels. The AMS, the MAA, and the MER jointly sponsored a four-part special session on pedagogical issues in higher education, including the teaching of calculus. Over the past several years, a movement for "calculus reform" has led to adoption of new textbooks and serious experiments with using computers in the classroom. Factions have arisen in the mathematics community, both for and against the reform efforts.

Some speakers at the special session focused on how university faculty are involved in decisions about textbook adoption in the public schools. Bill Jacob of the University of California, Santa Barbara, for example, described the way in which textbooks and curricula are approved by the California Board of Education. Although university faculty sit on the boards that recommend textbooks and curricula, many of the final decisions are made by people who are not sufficiently educated in mathematics. …

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