MATH FOLLOWUP….Normally I’d just post this as an update, but it seems like it deserves a separate post of its own. Yesterday I excerpted a Diane Ravitch op-ed about mathematics textbooks from the Wall Street Journal. One of the paragraphs in the op-ed was this one:

In a comparison of a 1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 “contemporary mathematics” textbook, Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics. In the 1973 book, for example, the index for the letter “F” included factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions and functions. In the 1998 book, the index listed families (in poverty data), fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises and fund-raising carnival.

That sounded pretty amusing indeed, but last night I got the following via email:

The 1998 “contemporary mathematics” textbook referenced [by Ravitch] actually has two distinct indexes ? one is called Index of Contexts, the other is called Index of Mathematical Topics. Now, let’s see, in which index might a discerning reviewer look for a list of mathematical topics that start with the letter “F”?

This seems to be a hard question for Ravitch, Evers, and Clopton. They chose to look in the Index of Contexts. Let’s use a bit more insight and look in the Index of Mathematical Topics. Under the letter “F” we find the following topics listed for this integrated mathematics textbook: Faces, Face-views (3-D drawing), Finding equations (using points, using regression, using situation, using slope and intercept), Five-number summary, Formula (area, perimeter, surface area), Four-color problem, Fractal, Fractional exponents, Frequency table, Front view (3-D drawing), and Function.

I don’t know if Ravitch is an innocent victim of deliberate deception by Evers and Clopton, or if she knew what they were up to and passed it along anyway. In either case, it seems as if she and the Wall Street Journal owe their readers a retraction.

UPDATE: I emailed Ravitch about this. Here is her response:

Does the 1998 math book have two indexes? I don’t know. The reason I cited Clopton and Evers was that I was taking the reference from a book chapter that they wrote. If I had done the research myself, I would not have cited them.

I have never seen a book with two indexes, but I suppose it is possible.

The reference to the NCTM standards is correct, however. The 1989 NCTM standards ignited a “math war” because of their neglect of basic skills. While I was sitting on the board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 1997-2004, there was a regular tug-of-war between the math educators who wanted children to use calculators and their critics, who thought that children should internalize the basic skills and not rely on a calculator to do the computation for them.

As for the reality of “ethnomathematics,” I suggest that you google the term. Last time I looked, there were about 28,000 references to it. An acquaintance at the University of Alaska told me that a colleague there has received millions from the National Science Foundation to create a program in “Eskimo mathematics.”

Hmmm. If I google “Kevin Drum” I get over 500,000 hits, so I’m not sure that’s such a great indication of vast influence. In any case, I suppose my next step is to try to contact either Clopton or Evers.

UPDATE 2: Yet more here.

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