Uncle Sam’s Math Books

Tom Loveless
A headshot of Tom Loveless.
Tom Loveless Former Brookings Expert

January 18, 2000

Washington is now in the business of “helping” local authorities pick math books for elementary, middle, and high school students. In October, the Department of Education declared five math programs “exemplary” and another five “promising.”

A few weeks later, a group of prominent mathematicians, educators, and scientists—including Nobel Prize winners—took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post with a letter to education secretary Richard Riley, urging him to withdraw the recommendations. The letter outlined the programs’ flaws, noted that parents in communities around the country had organized against the endorsed math books, and urged that well-respected mathematicians be included in future evaluations of math curricula.

The letter is right. The endorsed books favor trendy, unsubstantiated instructional approaches over solid math content. But this incident also underscores an important principle of education policy. Federal involvement in selecting textbooks is inherently a bad idea.

Why? Start with the basic structure of American educational governance. Selecting school texts is traditionally a local responsibility. This arrangement not only conforms with the beliefs of the nation’s founders—public education was omitted from the Constitution—it reflects a simple reality. State and local governments provide 93 percent of the funding for elementary and high-school education. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

American education’s localism is unique. It reflects the fact that US schools originally served as extensions of families, neighborhoods, and churches, not ministries of government. Hundreds of small towns provided public education in the early Colonies. Citizens were motivated to build schools before they got around to fighting a revolution or forging a national identity. Granted, some of today’s faith in local control is sentimental. Large school districts cover hundreds of square miles and are governed by huge bureaucracies. But a belief that parents and local educators should make most important educational decisions remains powerful.

The federal government’s endorsement of math books is based on a competing idea: that experts should be brought together at the national level to recommend the best way of conducting education. Once a panel of experts outlines the “right” way of doing things, what’s wrong with recommending it to others?

Several things. As the protest in the Washington Post shows, it depends on which experts are consulted. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)—an organization dominated by math educators, not mathematicians—launched its campaign for math reform, de-emphasizing the memorization of basic facts, paper-and-pencil computation, and the standard algorithms of arithmetic. In communities nationwide, the NCTM agenda has drawn fire from parents and mathematicians.

The process leading to the federal recommendations was designed to side with the NCTM in these battles. The selection panel was dominated by the council’s supporters, and books that conformed to its recommendations were favored in the review process.

The math wars now raging across the country mean states and localities are struggling to determine their own priorities in math curriculum. The federal government should stay rigorously neutral in such disputes.

In the long run, this is crucial. The way Americans conduct education is undergoing radical change.

For more than a century, governments have regulated more and more inputs into the system, controlling the assignment of children to schools, who can teach, how schools can spend money, and hundreds of other details. A new idea now spreading is that because government officials are distant from classrooms, they should establish goals for the system but leave control over inputs (such as choice of textbooks) to those on the front line of schooling—parents, teachers, and principals. Granting local schools more power while holding them accountable for results won’t guarantee better education. Parents, teachers, and school principals are just as likely to make mistakes as the federal government. But when they err, they’re in the best position to recognize the mistake and to benefit from adopting a better program.

Advocacy of local control is usually associated with political conservatives, but not exclusively.

In the 1960s, it was prominent in the thinking of the War on Poverty and in the speeches of Robert F. Kennedy as he campaigned for the presidency. Today, it is evident in the frustration of Latinos in East Los Angeles as they threaten to secede from a bloated, calcified school district, and across the country, in the yearnings of urban African-Americans as they increasingly turn to charter schools and vouchers as the only way of fleeing schools that doom their children to failure.

By law, the Department of Education is forbidden from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum … or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published materials….” It’s a good law. It was passed by a Democratic Congress. It needs to be obeyed.