Review: “A Brief History of American K-12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century”

As related in detail by David Klein, the history of mathematics standards in the United States is the story of a pendulum swinging back and forth for the last hundred years.  The priority – placed at various locations along the spectrum of practical skills vs. intellectualism – has shifted repeatedly since 1925, when William Heard Kilpatrick argued for discovery learning and utilitarianism in his book Foundations of Method.

Klein traces the ebb and flow of “progressive” education in its various forms since Kilpatrick (who considered mathematics “harmful rather than helpful to the kind of thinking necessary for ordinary living”).  The Life Adjustment Movement of the 1940s advocated a paternalistic approach to education, actively avoiding stigmatization of the majority of secondary-school students who were intellectually incapable of algebra and beyond.  After dormancy during the Sputnik and New Math eras, progressivism emerged again in the 1970s as the Open Education Movement, in which children were free to choose what they wanted to learn and what they didn’t.  (Hint: most of them preferred making Jello and cookies to studying math.)

Klein uses the repeated failures of the various progressive movements as the backdrop for the growth of national math standards, inspired by An Agenda for Action (published by  the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1980) and by A Nation at Risk (written by a commission appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Education).  The combined effect of these two documents was that the public collectively woke up to the sorry state of math education and began supporting the development of standards.  In the wake of this attention, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)  developed several standards-like documents – which Klein describes as instruments for promoting NCTM’s agenda,  characterized by Klein as pro-calculator and anti-calculus.

Against the anti-intellectual tide of the NCTM pressure, California and other states adopted rigorous standards in the 1990s.  Still, various localities (for example the LAUSD and El Paso schools) worked with NCTM-aligned programs, some homegrown and others developed by textbook publishers such as McDougal Littell.

Klein pits the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics against organized groups of informed parents and university mathematicians, who were concerned about the documented poor results of public math education in the 1990s.  It’s a fascinating and complicated story, with no obvious villain and enough ineptitude and corruption to go around.

1. Klein, D. (2005). A Brief History of American K-12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century. In Royer, J.M. (Ed.), Mathematical Cognition. Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, NC.


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