Math Educators Tell Publishers What’s Needed

By David J. Hoff — October 10, 2001 3 min read
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The next generation of math textbooks should cover fewer topics in more depth, offer teachers the tools to customize lesson plans, and try to reach students of varying ability levels.

Those suggestions came from educators, policymakers, and mathematicians attending a one-day mathematics “summit” here last week, sponsored by the nation’s textbook publishers.

“Please give us greater depth of instruction on fewer topics,” Barbara Montalto, the assistant director of mathematics for the Texas Education Agency, told the publishers. “Give us longer lessons linked together.”

The American Association of Publishers organized the meeting because math education has been one of the most controversial curriculum areas in recent years, noted Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Washington-based association’s school division.

For instance, recent research from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the most comprehensive international comparison of math education, suggests that American students spend too much time reviewing math topics they’ve already covered in previous grades, leaving little time to explore more sophisticated concepts.

That’s why Ms. Montalto told the textbook publishers that a book shouldn’t review what was taught to students the previous year. “Put it in an appendix or a separate book, only for the students who need it,” she said.

TIMSS researchers also concluded that American schools don’t do a good job teaching students the underlying concepts of mathematics, emphasizing instead repetition of math skills. (“Surprise! Analyses Link Curriculum, TIMSS Test Scores,” April 2, 1997.)

Several people at the meeting suggested that math textbooks need to do a better job addressing that situation.

Balance Sought

In recent years, advocates of traditional ways of teaching math that emphasize repetitive practice of skills and the mastering of algorithms have succeeded in revising standards in California, Massachusetts, and other states.

Some speakers at last week’s gathering suggested that publishers could walk a fine line between the two approaches.

One idea is that a publisher could produce a series of books outlining central mathematical concepts and principles that could be used for all students. Then a supplemental set of materials could “go beyond the standards” and include “all the fancy algebraic, algorithmic stuff that geeks like me enjoy,” said Joseph G. Rosenstein, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and the director of the New Jersey Mathematics Coalition.

Publishers also should search for better ways to give teachers the materials they need to design their own curricula, added Mitchell Chester, the assistant superintendent for assessment at the Ohio Department of Education.

Speakers at the meeting said, for instance, that teachers would benefit more from a package of resources produced by the publishers than from just one textbook. Based on test scores and other information they have about their students, teachers should be able to make “decisions of where to go next in the curricula, rather than moving to the next chapter in the textbook,” Mr. Chester said.

Textbook publishers are gathering ideas for how to meet the recommendations offered last week. Most publishers will be revising their math texts over the next two years.

In 2003, California will add titles to its list of textbooks that it allows districts to buy with state money. With the largest market for schoolbooks, the Golden State drives what’s available in the rest of the country.

“There are some really good ideas,” Mr. Driesler said after the meeting last week in Washington, “and I’m looking forward to hearing back from publishers about their reactions to them.”

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