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$12-Million Math-Curriculum Project Seeks Top-to-Bottom Change

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Responding to reports that have documented serious deficiencies in the teaching of precollegiate mathematics, the University of Chicago has launched a project designed to improve math instruction and to demonstrate to students the subject's relevance.

Details of the six-year University of Chicago School Mathematics Project were announced late last month by the university and the project's sponsor, the Amoco Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the Standard Oil Company (Indiana).

The project, already in its second year, has a projected cost of $12.5 million over the six years. Amoco has supported the first two years at $2 million and will provide roughly $4 million more through 1989, when the project is scheduled to end, according to Donald Schroeter, executive director of the foundation.

But more funds are needed from other sources if the goals of the program are to be met, said Naomi D. Fisher, associate director of the project.

Currently, three public elementary schools and 12 public and private secondary schools in the Chicago area serve as the project's pilot schools, testing new curriculum ideas, materials, and texts.

According to Ms. Fisher, the aim of the project is "to upgrade the math program for the vast middle range of students" and to develop instructional models that can be replicated in other schools.

Developers of the new curricula and teaching approaches include members of the university's mathematics-education department, visiting faculty from other institutions, curriculum consultants, and teachers.

'Break the Stranglehold'

The elementary segment of the program, for grades K to 6, is designed to "break the stranglehold that arithmetic has had on the elementary curriculum," Ms. Fisher said.

To accomplish that, she said, project designers have reduced the number of years devoted to repetitive computational skills and replaced that instruction with curricula that introduce students to "intuitive" concepts of geometry, statistics, algebra, and probability, in ways appropriate to the different age groups.

Project staff members train the elementary-school teachers in methods that encourage students to look for mathematical relationships in the environment and everyday situations.

Secondary Component

In the secondary segment of the program, for grades 7 to 12, students are introduced to such subjects as algebra, geometry, probability, and statistics earlier than usual; thus, by the time they graduate, project officials say, they will have been exposed to more kinds of math training than the typical high-school student.

"Many students lack the mathematics background necessary to succeed in college, on the job, or in daily affairs," said Zalman Usiskin, the professor of mathematics education who directs the secondary component of the project. "And many students end their study of mathematics too soon, not realizing the importance mathematics has in lat4er schooling and in the marketplace."

"The curriculum, in most cases, ignores the application of math," Ms. Fisher added. "We want to teach students how to use what they learn."

Thus far, the project has only introduced a "transition mathematics'' curriculum, which is intended for 7th graders but is currently being tested in selected 8th- and 9th-grade classes as well, Mr. Usiskin said last week.

Calculators and Computers

An algebra and advanced-algebra curriculum for the 8th and 10th grades will be developed this sum-mer; a 9th-grade geometry curriculum will be written later, Mr. Usiskin said.

At all grade levels, calculators and computers play an integral part in the project's curricula. Staff members are designing new computer software that will give the user more control than existing programs, Ms. Fisher said.

Computers and calculators enable students to learn the basic skills of mathematics more efficiently and allow them to concentrate on ideas and thoughts, instead of spending hours on repetitive drills, said Alan R. Hoffer, an education professor who is developing the curriculum for the elementary component of the project.

According to Ms. Fisher, the project's designers are borrowing ideas already in use in other countries where expectations of students' abilities to learn mathematics have been traditionally higher than in this country.

Soviet textbooks, teachers' materials, and studies on the psychology of learning have already been translated, and the project staff also plans to translate materials from Japan and East and West Germany.

"We can use what others have used successfully," Ms. Fisher said."There's no use reinventing the wheel."

Although 8th-grade American mathematics students achieve atabout the same level as average students in 23 other countries, and American 12th-grade calculus students achieve at slightly higher levels than students in other countries, average U.S. mathematics students in 12th-grade classes achieve in the bottom quarter of an international comparison of 8th and 12th graders.

That comparison, The Second International Mathematics Study, was conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Preliminary international findings were released last fall; the Stockholm-based group's final report is scheduled to appear late this year.

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