Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Is there a good excuse for textbooks math getting easier?

One person who acknowledges my observation that America's pre-1970s textbooks contained harder problems is David Griswold, my source for the Exeter math curriculum. On Dan Meyer's blog, Griswold write:

In the 1960s, textbooks had harder problems in them because the vast majority of Americans never came close to completing high school, so those books were never seen… To pretend the American textbooks and education of that era are superior to now is simply to ignore the fact that very few students ever used them, and those that did were a select, privileged, and talented few.
Apparently a reasonable response to the broader number of students attending high school is to dumb down the curriculum for everyone (including those who are less privileged but equally talented). Of course, this is what has happened--and is happening even more with full inclusion.

Why not instead make those mathematically superior pre-1970s books available to everyone and let students proceed through them at their own respective paces?

Convincing people to do this, however, involves challenging some other, deeply held beliefs: that only today's "21st century curriculum" prepares students for "21st century jobs"; that all students learn best in heterogeneous ability groups; that the more advanced students deepen their understanding when they explain math to the less advanced students; that the less advanced students appreciate being taught by the more advanced students; that children are as good at teaching one another as certified teachers are; and that we shouldn't worry about students who advance to the next level of math possibly being "math zombies."


Anonymous said...

"In the 1960s, textbooks had harder problems in them because the vast majority of Americans never came close to completing high school"

According to this ...


... roughly 75% completed high school in 1960. Yes, the rate is higher now, but to say "the vast majority never came close" in 1960 is not true. Is Griswold trying to imply high school in 1960 catered to group as exclusive as today's Philips Exeter?

Barry Garelick said...

I had the same reaction to Griswold's statement, so I'm glad you looked this up. His statement is similar to the bromide one constantly hears that "traditional math worked only for a small group of people". Yet ITBS scores from the 40's through mid 60's in math went on a steady climb for the states of Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota.

What might be a more accurate and responsible statement is that high school diplomas did not require three years of math; many students graduated with two years of math. Which meant that there were many students who took only algebra 1 and geometry, but not algebra 2 and precalculus.

Anonymous said...

@ Barry: or, two years of math that were called Business Math, which really meant two years when arithmetic skills through fractions and decimals were really solidified, word problems inched into algebra, and personal finance/business practices were introduced. I remember this; may students in my town took this course sequence. It would have been a much better option, for one of my children, in the 1990's, than Algebra 2 and Geometry. And she is not below average in intelligence.

lgm said...

Independent study was banned here. The union had a per student fee negotiated into their contract that was just under what JHU-CTY charges for a course....and with over 300 seniors having 2 to 4 study halls, the district did not want the expense of running any electives for them as a class or as independent study, even the 50 or so young enough to be compelled...that money has to go to students who REALLY need the help. These students who need more than the coursework required for the diploma are to go dual enroll at the CC, at their own expense, and providing their own transportation, leaving their funding at the school to use for the truly needy, who deserve classes.