Why the Best Math Curriculum Won’t Be a Textbook
The most easily understood and usable recommendation in the recent report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel calls for shorter, focused, and more coherent textbooks.
It’s easy to understand why the panel made this call. In countries that score well in math, such as Singapore, curriculum standards emphasize fewer topics in greater depth, and the matching textbooks are precisely engineered for coherence. Coherence, in turn, results in thin books that are nonetheless mathematically rich. In contrast, as the the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study famously described it, the curriculum in the United States is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” American math texts can be 700 to 1,000 pages long. In an effort to cover these enormous textbooks, American teachers skip lightly over many topics, achieving little depth of learning. The national advisory panel calls for putting “first things first.” One of the first things to do will be to engage in some serious curriculum engineering.
The bloat in textbooks, at least in part, comes from the nature of book publishing in the United States. As the panel observes, publishers accommodate the demands of 50 different states by including everything that any state might want. Publishers have been experimenting with custom publishing for many years, but it requires no less effort to define a curriculum for a small district than for a large one. And the resources available—for the definition of standards and for the adoption itself—are more limited. Thus, the economies of book publishing lead to one-size-fits-all textbooks that aim to meet the needs of all students and end up being...
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