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Published in Print: May 3, 2000, as Algebra Textbooks Come Up Short In Project 2061 Review

Algebra Textbooks Come Up Short In Project 2061 Review

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Several of the most widely used algebra textbooks provide an inadequate framework for teaching the mathematical system and have little potential for helping students learn it, a study released last week concludes. Most others, though adequate, have major shortcomings, it says.

For More Information

Read the evaluation results for each book reviewed, from Project 2061.

The review of 12 textbooks is the latest conducted by Project 2061, an initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to improve mathematics and science education. Seven of the books have the potential to help students learn algebra, the evaluators determined, while five were found to have little potential to do so.

"Algebra is a 'gatekeeper' course for many students and the key for going on to learn higher mathematics," George D. Nelson, the Project 2061 director, said in releasing the results here last week. "But the vast majority of students aren't learning algebra, due in large part to the nature of instruction used by teachers as outlined in textbooks."

Evolution in Math

The textbooks were selected from more than two dozen now on the market because they are the best sellers or the most current. They were rated according to how well they: identify a sense of purpose for studying and using algebra; build on student ideas and engage students in math; develop mathematical ideas; promote student thinking about the subject; and assess student progress.

Most of the texts were found to be "poor" or "fair" in building on students' existing knowledge of mathematics. Those books deemed "adequate" generally did a satisfactory or good job of building a sequence of activities, providing practice, and meeting some of the benchmarks outlined in the newly revised standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. But to be effective, the review says, they must be supplemented with teacher professional development and other resources.

While the books present a broad range of content, they are not effective at building a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts, said Gerald Kulm, a researcher at Texas A&M University in College Station and the director of the evaluation.

"There are a lot of operations and procedures in these texts ... but they are not building on the central ideas [of algebra]," Mr. Kulm contended.

The program that received the highest ratings, the Interactive Mathematics Program, a text written with money from the National Science Foundation and published by Key Curriculum Press, was considered "excellent" in two categories and "good" in five others. The text was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education last year as an exemplary program.

Interactive Mathematics and several other NSF-financed texts included in the evaluation are considered integrated programs, meaning they incorporate several areas of mathematics, including geometry, in one volume.

Inclusion of those programs in the evaluation points to an evolution in math education, according to Eric Robinson, an associate professor of mathematics at Ithaca College in New York, and the director of the COMPASS project, which provides information to schools about integrated-math programs subsidized by the NSF.

"We are one of the few countries, as the [Third International Mathematics and Science Study] suggests, that still thinks of mathematics education as a list of topics," said Mr. Robinson, who endorses a more inclusive approach to math education. "Just the fact that [integrated programs] were included in this evaluation and are becoming more popular means we are a country in transition."

Guide for Selection

Math experts praised the report, saying it provided a strong guide for schools, districts, and textbook-adoption committees seeking the best instructional materials for their students.

"Millions of dollars are spent on textbooks, and there really needs to be some guidance," said Jacqueline Mitchell, the state math supervisor for Maine and the president of the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics. "Schools and districts don't have time to do this type of analysis themselves."

Mr. Nelson attributed some of the textbooks' weaknesses to the constraints of the textbook-adoption processes that guide selection in some 20 states and the challenges faced by publishers in meeting the detailed standards laid out by those states.

But publishing officials say they face a dilemma in deciding whether to publish what textbook critics say schools should buy, or what school systems say they will buy.

"Academic studies of textbooks and reports critiquing them are useful tools in identifying key components in teaching a particular discipline," Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers, said in a statement. "But without addressing the multiplicity of state standards, the legitimate needs of classroom teachers, and other issues, achieving ongoing improvement in the quality of classroom instructional materials, an objective we are all striving for, will be far more difficult."

Teacher Knowledge

John A. Thorpe, the executive director of the NCTM, said that textbooks are only one tool in improving math education.

"Having teachers who have the appropriate knowledge to do their work well is perhaps more important than textbooks," Mr. Thorpe said, "and they need professional-development opportunities to get there."

Project 2061 expects to release a review of high school biology textbooks this summer.

Vol. 19, Issue 34, Page 5

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