Whatever Happened To New Math?

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It was not surprising, said the reformers, that students lost interest. By the early 1950s two-thirds of U.S. high school students were ending their math careers after their freshman year. And many of those who went on to “advanced math” were still not prepared for college course work.

The dean of the school of engineering at the University of Illinois, William Everitt, proposed a solution: he would find a young, gifted teacher at the university’s laboratory high school and give him the task of designing a high school math curriculum to help prepare future engineers for college. Had he not found Max Beberman, in 1951, what became the University of Illinois’s Committee on School Mathematics (UICSM) might have remained a prairie dream. But under the guidance of this brilliant, chain-smoking New Yorker, UICSM became a new-math totem.

It is a particularly nice irony that the twenty-five-year-old Beberman was put in charge of this four-member reform committee. A graduate of City College of New York at age nineteen, Beberman had originally been denied a teaching credential because his Bronx accent was so unintelligible. Yet here he was being asked to help shape a new high school curriculum. Beberman loved the role, the limelight, and teaching children. With characteristic sagacity he quickly realized that the dull and lifeless textbooks available would ruin his chances, so with the help of the committee and a logician named Herbert Vaughan, he set out to write his own.

Five years later UICSM had produced loose-leaf texts for all four years of high school and put those texts to experimental use in four locations, including University High on the Urbana-Champaign campus. These early tomes were remarkable for their clarity, their weaving together of algebra and geometry, and their clear, but tacit, criticism of the piece-meal textbooks they were meant to replace. On the opening page of the 1954 edition of the revolutionary High School Mathematics First Course , students were introduced to number lines. By the third page they were negotiating positive and negative numbers and confronting the concept of sets. By the end of Unit 9 they had covered everything from coordinate planes to tangent ratios. A summary of concepts, rules, and principles followed each unit. New math had been born. And as classroom reports from pilot schools flowed in and lessons were revised, the message seemed clear: Children were learning more, staying with math longer, and even saying they enjoyed it.

This was exciting news for the Commission on Mathematics of the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB), which incorporated many of new math’s guiding tenets in its influential 1959 report “Program for College Preparatory Mathematics.” (The commission’s members included Beberman, Vaughan, and David Page, a UICSM teacher who would soon focus his reform efforts on the elementary school.) CEEB’s goal was both to stimulate change in the high school curriculum and to expound the spirit of reform groups, not only in Illinois but at five other colleges and universities. Missing from the commission’s specific recommendations, however, was any call to modernize teachers.

Beberman was keenly aware of the teacher’s role as gatekeeper for the movement. Beginning in 1958 he used National Science Foundation funds to organize four-week summer teaching institutes on the Illinois campus and elsewhere. Even before Sputnik triggered the funding that broadened the program to nineteen thousand schools, Beberman and Page flew around Illinois, teaching classes and listening to teacher complaints. Such feedback prompted them to add more drill to their courses in 1959. For UICSM, teacher education was as important as its 1,430-page teaching manual.

National fretting over the loss of America’s scientific superiority was unleashing other forces in 1957 and 1958. At Yale the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG), led by Edward Begle, began gathering teams of schoolteachers and mathematicians for “writing sessions.” Over the next fourteen years, SMSG would produce textbooks for every grade from kindergarten up, including special texts for less able and gifted students. The same federal and foundation grants that fueled SMSG propelled perhaps a dozen other reform programs as well. Together with UICSM, they dissected the traditional math curriculum from all sides. Some, bowing to the recommendations of the Cambridge Conference on School Mathematics, urged a radical acceleration of math curriculum so that calculus could become a high school subject. Others were more in the mainstream. Some aimed at high schools, others the primary grades. Although the public would eventually lump them all together as new math, the work of the ebullient Beberman and the commanding Begle, both of whom appeared in almost every popular periodical of the day, stood apart. Mutual friends and friendly competitors, they became the fathers of new math as well.

Thanks to the diligence of the Dominican nuns in my hometown of Bakersfield, California, I was blissfully unaware of this grand intellectual commotion in junior high school. I was learning math the old way, just as I had learned the multiplication tables, long division, and fractions. Drill, drill, drill.