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The December American Heritage offers a cautionary tale for education reformers in its look back at the "new math" movement that swept U.S. schools in the 1950's and 60's.

In "Whatever Happened to New Math?" the California journalist Jeffrey W. Miller traces from both a personal and historical perspective the birth, heyday, and downfall of this discovery-oriented, drill-reducing teaching technique.

"For many of us," he concludes, "new math was a disaster; for others, a godsend." The difference lies not in the conceptual framework, he explains, but in the way it was translated to the classroom. As reformers raced to meet the Sputnik era's demand for a "quick fix" to the technological gap, too little thought was given, he says, to the fact that a teaching strategy is "only as good as the teachers."

New math had been the brainchild of Max Beberman, a gifted young teacher at the University of Illinois laboratory high school who was commissioned to produce, with the help of a university committee, experimental math texts for use in pilot high-school programs. He urged a conceptual overhaul of mathematics education that would allow the subject to be taught much as a language is taught, with abstractions simplified by letting students use their natural ability to find patterns and seek the reason behind them.

Successful results in the Illinois trials led to rapid endorsements and funding by associations, foundations, and the federal government. But Mr. Beberman died in 1971, having warned of the "abortion of the revolution" by poor teaching from unprepared teachers who were willing to abandon all forms of teaching basic computation.

He and others, most notably Stanford University's School Mathematics Study Group, headed by the late Edward Begle, had spurred the production of materials and training that reached, by the mid-1960's, 1.2 million teachers and half of all students.

But by then, Mr. Miller says, "the revolution was no longer ... in any single person's control." As quality faltered and results disappointed, public opinion--and funding--shifted away from the reform as rapidly as it had embraced it.

"The country passed on to the next fad ... , labeled the previous one a failure, and blamed it for low test scores and a decline in skills," he writes.

"Seven Ways To Prosper in the 90's," Money magazine's end-of-the-year special issue, gives a nod to the the parental-choice movement by providing a questionnaire for parents on school evaluation. The "quality test" for schools clarifies parental concerns into 50 concise questions designed to help those who want to have a more powerful say in their children's education.

Created with the advice of several well-known educators, the "parental sat" features questions to be asked principals, teachers, guidance counselors, pta members, and even students. The questions cover such areas as teacher accessibility, facilities, curricular material, discipline, and community support.

A short "math" section shows how to assess student-attainment rates by examining test scores and other factors, such as dropout rates and the number of students in college-preparatory classes.

Most questions are accompanied by an appropriate response against which parents may judge the answers they are given.

The Money Extra issue is available for $3.25 from Money, Time & Life Building, Rockefeller Center, New York, N.Y. 10020.

"Tie students' schooling to their subsequent jobs and careers" and they will reap academic, economic, and social benefits. That is the simple yet compelling argument for the adoption of youth apprenticeships two scholars put forward in the fall issue of The Public Interest.

Robert L. Lerman, an economist at American University, and Hillard Pouncy, a social-policy analyst at Brandeis, use as their model the German system, which introduces students to career opportunities in the middle-school years and ties school work directly to on-the-job training in the junior and senior high-school years. They cite statistics showing that 70 percent of German youths attain jobs through apprenticeships and 90 percent finish school.

"The job market is paying an increasing premium for skill, indicating that the demand for skilled workers is rising faster than the supply," they write. Apprenticeship programs in the United States would ease this problem while also narrowing the pay gap between high-school and college graduates.

In addition to giving all students greater incentive to succeed in school, such programs would open opportunities for disadvantaged youths, the authors argue, especially inner-city minorities. Through apprenticeship programs, they say, "access to good careers would become less dependent on the networking of young people's relatives and friends."

Both schools and businesses would bear responsibilities for the training and evaluation of students in such a plan, as well as for altering the curriculum to accommodate internships and developing placement assistance.

A fundamental strength of this approach, they say, is its appeal for the public: "Unlike other initiatives, this job-based education strategy is inclusive, not exclusive; it aims to enhance productivity, not simply to redistribute wealth. By establishing the connection between school and future career possibilities, students are encouraged to learn and to earn."--skg

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