New Texts Aim To ‘Put Context Back’ in Math Instruction

By Robert Rothman — April 12, 1989 3 min read

A six-year, $9.4-million effort to overhaul the secondary-school mathematics curriculum moves toward nationwide implementation this week with the publication of the first textbooks developed by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project.

The project, which is the largest university-based mathematics-education effort ever undertaken, has been in place at a number of schools on a pilot basis since 1985, and has produced “astonishing results,” according to its director, Zalman Usiskin. This year, some 30,000 students are using materials developed through the project.

The new textbooks--published by Scott, Foresman & Company--will enable the project to spread, in Mr. Usiskin’s words, to “a lot of schools, not just a few.”

“If you really want to change what goes on in the schools in the United States,” he said, “you have to publish your materials commercially.”

“We were best at research and development,” he noted, “and the commercial publishers are best at putting materials on the page and marketing.”

Unlike most current textbooks, Mr. Usiskin said, the new books--for 7th-grade transition mathematics, 8th-grade algebra, and 10th-grade advanced algebra--treat grades 7 and 8 as introductions to high-school-level mathematics, rather than as reviews of elementary arithmetic.

That approach, he said, should improve instruction by enabling teachers to cover the more advanced material more slowly than they do now.

In addition, he suggested, the new texts also place a greater emphasis on the use of calculators and computers to perform routine computation, expand the scope of instruction to include data analysis and statistics, and place material in a “real world” context.

The strategies are similar to those recommended in recent reports by the National Research Council and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Shirley M. Frye, president of the nctm, called the project “exemplary,” and said the new texts would help more teachers use the ideas the two national groups are proposing.

“Materials and textbooks are the backbone of what teachers use in the classroom,” she said.

Created in 1983, the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project has been supported by a $6.4- million grant from the Amoco Foundation, $1.2 million from the Ford Motor Company, $1 million from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, $750,000 from the National Science Foundation, and smaller grants from other corporate sponsors.

Scott, Foresman, which outbid four other firms for the right to publish the textbooks as its major math series, also contributed financially to the project.

The only precollegiate math project that is larger, according to Mr. Usiskin, is “Square One TV,” the public-television series for upper-elementary students.

The Chicago project was aimed, the director said, at developing materials to reflect what he called the “very great consensus” among math educators that a shift was necessary from a reliance on computational skills to an emphasis on solving real-world problems.

“People think that if you teach skills, everything else will come later,” he said. “They are wrong.”

“That has caused the problem,” Mr. Usiskin insisted. “By teaching skills without a context, students do not know why they are studying what they are studying.”

For example, he noted, teachers tend to spend “a huge amount of time” drilling students on how to perform long division. This reduces the number of classroom hours that can be used to teach why or when to divide, he pointed out.

To reverse these trends, the Chicago project introduces more advanced concepts, such as algebra, as early as the 7th grade, in order to give teachers more time to teach them.

“By slowing down the pace at which the new stuff comes,” Mr. Usiskin said, “we can hold more kids in.”

He said the materials also “try to put back” the context for mathematics that the curriculum has removed.

Algebra was created from real-world observations, Mr. Usiskin pointed out. “It wasn’t put there to punish students.”

Over the next few years, he added, project officials will develop additional materials. Scott, Foresman is scheduled to publish a geometry textbook next year, and books for functions, statistics, and trigonometry, and for precalculus and discrete mathematics, in 1991.

In addition, Mr. Usiskin said, officials plan to evaluate the effects of their efforts. This year, he noted, students who began the program three years ago are entering 10th grade.

“The senior high schools don’t expect much of these kids,” he said. “They expect them to be worse than the typical 10th grader.”

In fact, he said, “teachers are reporting astonishing results.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1989 edition of Education Week as New Texts Aim To ‘Put Context Back’ in Math Instruction