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Curriculum Update

The latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies

Math Education Time Capsule:

Q&A with Jeremy Kilpatrick

Q:Why will educators want to read A History of School Mathematics?

A:Anyone who teaches mathematics needs some sense of how we got the curriculum we have and where today's issues in school mathematics originated. Teachers should know how the roles of the state and federal governments have changed, how textbook adoption processes have evolved, and how standardized mathematics testing emerged. The U.S. school mathematics curriculum appears to have changed much more slowly than that of other countries, so it's helpful to understand where we have been and why change appears to have been so difficult.

Q:How do you hope the book will be used?

A:I hope administrators will encourage teachers to read chapters on topics of interest--topics such as the story of the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, pedagogy in mathematics textbooks, the teaching of mathematical modeling or the emergence of computing technology--and discuss those chapters in department meetings or as part of their continuing professional development. Every chapter has something illuminating to say about how teachers of mathematics might think about their practice.

Q:This work was 10 years in the making. Can you shed some light on the history of that process?

A:For the most part, the editorial panel chose topics and invited authors, but we also issued several calls for chapter proposals. We either suggested reviewers or let authors choose their own, and some authors chose co-authors as well. George Stanic, the principal editor, and I worked so hard at the editing process. I always thought I was a painstaking editor, but George makes me look like a bungler. I won't say we discussed every comma and semicolon, but we talked about many of them. And we did a lot of questioning of claims and checking for accuracy.

Q:What do you think will surprise educators most about the history of math education?

A:My [university] students sometimes act as though the field didn't exist before they entered it. So I think educators reading the volumes will be surprised at how often our professional forebears had to deal with issues just like those we face today. The only thing that surprised George and me was that, even in 1,800 or so pages, our authors haven't begun to say all that could be said about the scope and complexity of our field's history.

Q:You describe the work as "an incomplete but honest history of the struggle to understand the role of mathematics in the education of human beings." What struggles of the past intersect with the present?

A:The greatest struggle of the past--and the present--concerns why we teach mathematics. The answer most people would give is that mathematics is useful. But that hides the clash between the school's promise to students--study mathematics and you'll get a high-paying, high-status job where you'll use mathematics--and the reality of the adult world, which needs many workers for jobs that neither use much mathematics, pay much, nor have high status. A limited focus on usefulness also has problematic consequences for how mathematics is taught.

Q:In what ways might the history of mathematics education predict the future of this field?

A:As we say in the book's preface, the past doesn't allow for easy predictions about the future. History can, however, suggest some ways to make the future different than it might otherwise be. For example, even those concerted attempts to unify the mathematics curriculum in the early 1900s and to modernize it in the 1950s and 1960s yielded only surface, temporary or localized changes. Then, as today, attempts to implement reform have largely ignored the wider social, political and economic context. Rather than predict the failure of current reform efforts, I would instead hope that knowing the history of school mathematics can help us create a better future.

Jeremy Kilpatrick is a regents professor in the department of mathematics education at the University of Georgia. He is co-editor of A History of School Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2004).

Study Debunks a School-to-Work Myth

Critics of school-to-work transition initiatives and career-technical programs have contended that they confine students by tracking them into classes and work experiences that orient them only toward immediate entry into the workforce. This orientation, critics say, comes at the expense of preparation for and opportunities to attend college. Not so, according to a decade-long evaluation of the Career Academy approach in nine high schools across the U.S.

The research, published in the report Career Academies: Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes and Educational Attainment, shows how these small learning communities--which combine academic and technical curricula around a career theme--influence students' prospects.

One finding: Career academies have no particular impact on educational attainment. Nearly 80 percent of people in both the academy and non-academy groups enrolled in a post-secondary education program at some point after high school. By the end of the four-year, post-high school follow-up period, more than half of these students had either completed a post-secondary credential or were still working toward one. These educational attainment levels are higher than national averages for similar students from similar school districts.

The research is based on the experiences of more than 1,400 young people, approximately 85 percent of whom are Hispanic or African-American.

Take Two on Orwell's 1984

Many of the themes from George Orwell's classic novel 1984 resonate today--such as how language is engineered to shape public opinion and the ever-shifting icons of evil as the focus of popular rage. And the term "Orwellian" has experienced a resurgence in discussions about how public officials, business executives, the media and others manipulate language to sculpt public policy.

To help promote awareness, discussion and debate about the key roles of language in politics and culture, the National Council of Teachers of English is sponsoring a nationwide reading of Orwell's book in October. The "1984+20" project will involve educators and students in high schools, colleges and universities, as well as citizens in libraries, community organizations and book discussion groups. NCTE is providing background resources, lesson plans and online forums.

History Textbooks Rated: "Serviceable to Abysmal"

In a review of 12 widely used U.S. and world history textbooks--aimed in part at helping educators in selection--the highest grade assigned to a book was a C+. Too bad this test wasn't graded on a curve.

In the forward to A Consumer's Guide to High School History Textbooks, a project of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, President Chester E. Finn Jr. notes that the books "range from serviceable to abysmal. None is distinguished or even very good. The best are merely adequate." The books were judged on criteria that emphasized historical accuracy, coherence, balance and writing quality. Overall, "lack of bias" received the lowest average rating among the U.S. history books, and "interest level" got the lowest marks among the world history books.

In light of the reviews, Finn says high school history teachers need to be better prepared so they will depend less on textbooks (the majority of these teachers did not major or minor in the subject).

In addition, he recommends that teachers be given more power in selecting materials. Rather than state or even district-wide adoptions, he suggests that individual schools and teachers be able to select any textbook and supplemental materials that attain state or district academic standards. Teachers should even have the option of making their own "textbooks," using their budgets to collect materials from the Internet, television or a variety of publications, Finn says.