from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1999

Reviewing a mathematics textbook

Glencoe Pre-Algebra
An Integrated Transition to Algebra & Geometry
1997. 843 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-825031-1.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a division of the McGraw-Hill Companies.)

Glencoe's Manual of Fuzz

Tom VanCourt

I read textbooks aloud. I am affiliated, as a volunteer reader, with an organization that produces audiotapes of textbooks, for use by blind or dyslexic students. During my work as a reader, I recite what each book says, and I describe aloud any equations, important illustrations, or other substantive appurtenances that accompany the main narrative. I specialize in recording books that deal with the natural sciences, with computer science, or with mathematics -- and this is how I encountered Glencoe Pre-Algebra.

The experience of recording Glencoe Pre-Algebra left me wondering how anyone could learn any math from this book. It looks like a one-stop-shopping depot of blunders, and it displays nearly all of the undesirable didactic practices that I can think of.

The fundamental reason for this is quite obvious -- Glencoe Pre-Algebra is an 800-page tribute to the fad called "fuzzy math." Fuzzy math (which is known by several other names as well, including "new new math," "maybe math," "rain-forest math" and "math appreciation") is the replacement for the disastrous "new math" fad of the 1960s and 1970s. New math was a collection of corrupted factoids drawn from real mathematical disciplines, such as set theory and number theory. Fuzzy math is a corruption of notions drawn from pop culture and especially from pop psychology.

I must point out that fuzzy math is not the same thing as fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic is a formal branch of mathematical inquiry, usually taught at the graduate-school level. It is based upon a rigorous body of theory, and it has important applications in systems-analysis work. Fuzzy math is not formal, is not rigorous, has little to do with mathematics, and is barely applicable to anything. The similarity of the names "fuzzy logic" and "fuzzy math" is unfortunate.

Marianne Jennings described some fuzzy math to readers of The Textbook Letter in her 1996 article "Rain-Forest Algebra and MTV Geometry." That article was Jennings's analysis of fuzzy-math books that her daughter had been forced to use in public schools in Arizona [see note 1, below]. For a broader account of fuzzy math -- with information about its history, its notions, and some people who have promoted it -- I recommend Martin Gardner's essay "The New New Math," which appeared in The New York Review of Books [note 2]

As Gardner observes, fuzzy math is strongly influenced by multi-culti, by environmentalism and by feminism, and the devotees of fuzzy math are preoccupied with "equity" and "internalized self-image" and other pop notions. To the extent that they concern themselves with math lessons, they emphasize such things as "interactive learning" and making students work on "open-ended" problems. Those are code-phrases. "Interactive learning" means that students work in groups and try to perform tasks by trial-and-error, instead of listening to a teacher instruct them in established principles of mathematical analysis and computation. Working on "open-ended" problems means trying to reinvent math that has already been invented. Let me quote Gardner:

[T]eachers traditionally introduced the Pythagorean theorem by drawing a right triangle on the blackboard, adding squares on its sides, and then explaining, perhaps even proving, that the area of the largest square exactly equals the combined areas of the two smaller squares.

According to fuzzy math, this is a terrible way to teach the theorem. Students must be allowed to discover it for themselves. . . . Using the edges of [squares cut from paper], they form triangles of various shapes. The "winner" is the first to discover that if the area of one square exactly equals the combined areas of the two other squares, the triangle must have a right angle with the largest square on its hypotenuse. For example, a triangle of sides 3, 4, 5. Students who never discover the theorem are said to have "lost" the game. In this manner, with no help from the teacher, the children are supposed to discover that with right triangles a2 + b2 = c2.

Fuzzy-mathers purport to think that this sort of thing is better than having a real teacher of mathematics demonstrate the art of constructing mathematical proofs. They purport to believe that making students fumble around for hours or days, trying to discover what we already know, is preferable to having a real teacher of mathematics explicate the mathematical knowledge that humanity has accumulated over the centuries. Memorization -- even the memorization of multiplication tables and other indispensable information -- is anathema to fuzzy-mathers, who refer to memorization tasks as "drill and kill."

It is easy to recognize fuzzy-math textbooks. They fairly glow with racial awareness and political correctness, as manifested in frequent, self-conscious, irrelevant references to blacks, women and other members of Victim groups. The books also display a vivid, though sometimes confused, awareness of health issues and environmental issues, and they have swarms of bright-colored pictures that bear little relation, or no relation at all, to the text. Gardner, describing a fuzzy-math book produced by Addison-Wesley, remarks that "the book's mathematical content is often hard to find in the midst of material that has no clear connection to mathematics."

One could say the same thing about Glencoe Pre-Algebra, if one wanted to make an extreme understatement.

Selling "Dream Jeans"

The table of contents in Glencoe Pre-Algebra fills twelve pages and gives a fairly accurate impression of what we will see in the next 800. The table of contents begins with a spread that includes pictures of a calculator, a coiled spring, a puppy, and a farm field that has been planted to resemble one of Vincent van Gogh's paintings. The pictures have no captions and no detectable relation to the adjacent listings of topics and page numbers. As the table of contents proceeds, pointless pictures proliferate and are supplemented by pointless little notes. On page xii, for example, a note informs us that "Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman to go into space." This prefigures the book's heavy emphasis on matters of race -- but what does it have to do with math? In another note, on page xv, Glencoe tells us that a game called Senet "made its first known appearance in Egypt in about [sic] 2686 B.C." So what?

The parade of irrelevancies, discontinuities and non sequiturs (both visual and verbal) continues into the body of the book. Chapter 1 ("Tools for Algebra and Geometry") starts out with a lengthy advertisement for blue jeans manufactured by Levi Strauss & Co. -- and now the phrase product placement springs forcefully to my mind. Product-placement advertising is well established in the film and television industries: Corporations pay fees to secure the "placement" (i.e., the displaying or mentioning) of their products in films, television dramas, or game shows. Now, it seems, corporations can also buy placements in Glencoe schoolbooks.

The Levi Strauss ad, thinly disguised as a news report, tells students that

While jeans may be the most popular fashion of all time, sometimes finding a pair that fits is like searching for buried treasure. But Levi Strauss, the original maker of jeans, is coming to the rescue. You can now go to a store and get a pair of jeans made to measure. . . . After some fancy figuring, the computer chooses a trial pair of jeans for you to try on. . . . In three weeks, your dream jeans arrive. Being in fashion has never been so easy!

Apparently, the young student of mathematics is supposed to infer that there is a branch of math called "fancy figuring."

The ad is augmented by a time-line which tells about great moments in the history of jeans. The student learns, for example, that 1926 saw the introduction of "First jeans with a zipper instead of buttons." (This item is illustrated not with a picture of a zipper but with a picture of a button, and the button displays the name "Levi Strauss & Co.") Similarly, the student learns that 1939 brought the introduction of "Lady Levis, the first name-brand jeans made specifically for women." However, one illustrated item on the time-line is plainly absurd: "1974 Beverly Johnson, the first black model on the cover of a major fashion magazine."

What does Beverly Johnson or her blackness have to do with Levi Strauss & Co.? What is she doing here? She certainly isn't wearing jeans.

It is interesting to compare the Levi Strauss advertising with certain other items that appear in Glencoe Pre-Algebra. Page 155 has a photograph of a package of dental floss, but an artfully placed toothbrush covers the brand-name. On page 405, a photograph shows packages of such familiar products as Kraft grated cheese and Dinty Moore Beef Stew -- but here a Glencoe illustrator has gone to the trouble of obliterating the brand-names. These observations lead to an inference: Kraft Foods, Inc., and Hormel Foods Corporation (the manufacturer of Dinty Moore stew) were unwilling to pay product-placement fees to Glencoe, but Levi Strauss & Co. sent Glencoe a check.

Bertha Thangelane, Alex Haley, Potato Chips . . .

The material about jeans is followed by an item about "Employment Opportunities" in retailing, then by an article about Venus Williams, a black athlete who studies foreign languages and hopes to become a paleontologist.

Remember that we have merely looked at the first few pages of the first chapter. We still have far to go and many chapters to traverse.

On our way to attaining a proper comprehension of pre-algebra, we have to absorb more doses of irrelevant advice about careers. (After all, there's more to life than retailing!) We must digest an advertisement for Reebok shoes, read about the tallest recorded house of cards, and apprehend that Chinese players of bridge are turning into strong competitors. We must try to find the arithmetic in an arithmetic problem that begins: "Bertha Thangelane of Soweto, South Africa used the political changes in South Africa to start her business. She is the co-owner and managing director of RNB Creations (Pty) Ltd., which makes school uniforms." (The arithmetic finally emerges when we determine how many uniforms this woman can cut from a 50-yard bolt of cloth. "Pty" and "Ltd." are never explained.) We must learn that in 1974 Alex Haley finished writing his book Roots, which "traced his family's history" back to an African named Kunta Kinte, and that "A TV miniseries of Roots made in 1977 won a record-setting 9 Emmys." (However, we don't have to learn that Haley's book was a fake, or that Haley promoted both Roots and himself by making dubious claims [note 3]. Glencoe's writers don't mention these points.) We must learn that potato chips were invented in 1853 by an Amerindian named George Crum, that "the first African-American to have a speaking role in a nationally televised commercial" was a woman named Gail Fisher, and that a black man named Lewis Howard Latimer made the drawings that accompanied Alexander Graham Bell's application for a patent on the telephone.

And so on, and so on, and so on. I could list many more of the diversions, decoys and irrelevant bagatelles that I have seen in Glencoe Pre-Algebra, but I'm sure that you have caught the overall nature of the book. Glencoe Pre-Algebra seems more likely to induce attention-deficit disorder than to impart any mathematical knowledge. An article that appeared four years ago in the American Educational Research Journal pointed to research which showed that the addition of vivid, distracting material to a book can often diminish students' recall of information that is important [note 4]. That research was published in 1992, but Glencoe's writers apparently don't know about it or don't care.

"Alternative Assessment"

Even when the writers of Glencoe Pre-Algebra actually deal with math, their approach is oddly non-mathematical. In the first problem set, students are directed to begin keeping a "Math Journal" by "writing two or three sentences that describe what you like or dislike about mathematics." This is the first of various manifestations of the fuzzy-math notion that students have to develop a warm emotional relationship with the material that they are studying. I'm sure that some few students will require special encouragement and help, but I can't believe that emotions have to command a major role in a math curriculum. According to my own experience and my observations of others, good feelings come from mastery of the subject matter -- not the other way around.

Perhaps that is the reason why I also am troubled by the end-of-chapter "Alternative Assessment" sections that occur throughout Glencoe Pre-Algebra. Read, for example, the material at the end of chapter 10. In the section headlined "Study Guide and Assessment," the exercises demand that students plot data, recognize permutations and combinations, do calculations involving factorials, and "Find the range, median, upper and lower quartiles, and interquartile range" of a given list of numbers. But in the section headlined "Alternative Assessment," students are sent away to write an article titled "Are you average?" or to ponder whether they are using their time wisely, and each student is directed to "Select an item from your work in this chapter that shows how your understanding of the concepts improved and place it in your portfolio." Here Glencoe is clearly declaring two expectations. First, some students will be completely defeated by the material in chapter 10 and will be unable to perform the exercises in the "Study Guide and Assessment" section. Second, teachers will want some pretext for awarding good grades to such students and for pushing the students ahead to be defeated by chapter 11. The "Alternative Assessment" section provides the desired pretext.

Glencoe's two expectations reflect a basic tenet of fuzzy math: The "reformers" who have promoted fuzzy math have explicitly renounced the idea that it is necessary for each student to acquire certain basic skills, at certain points in the math curriculum, before moving forward [note 5]. This renunciation coincides with a broader fad that extends beyond math education and has affected the teaching of many subjects in many school districts. Impelled by pseudoegalitarian social ideology, many districts deliberately mix together, in the same classes, students who vary greatly in their capacities and their degrees of preparation [note 6]. The backward students in such "heterogeneous" classes cannot hope to handle the work or the assessment exercises that the better students can handle, so the backward students are assessed by a different set of standards. The term alternative assessment is an established code-phrase for the process of creating the impression that backward students have succeeded when they actually (and predictably) have failed. The other code-phrase that applies here is social promotion. I pity the alternative-assessment students who are to be dragged along, bewildered, through curricula that clearly do not match their skills or their needs.

In Glencoe Pre-Algebra, the "Alternative Assessment" sections seem to become weaker and less mathematical as the chapters roll on. In a pathetic way, this makes sense. As the chapters roll on, the alternative-assessment students will fall farther and farther behind, and will grasp less and less.

Reinventing Arithmetic

I would not think much of a cooking class in which students were furnished with an oven and heaps of ingredients, then were expected to do trial-and-error experiments until they invented the art of baking. We already have a vast body of knowledge about baking, reflecting thousands of years' worth of thought and experimentation (plus a pinch or two of modern chemistry). To hide all that knowledge, and expect students to reinvent baking on their own, would be ridiculous. Yet a comparable know-nothing approach underlies much of the early instruction in Glencoe Pre-Algebra.

In keeping with a dictate of fuzzy math, students are expected to reinvent the laws of arithmetic on their own, and to do this while "Modeling with Manipulatives." The term manipulatives is jargon. The manipulatives are small toys (such as counters or tiles or sticks) that usually represent quantities, and the students are supposed to move these objects around in ways that represent mathematical operations or that will reveal mathematical relationships. This soon becomes ridiculous. There is no doubt that colored counters can help young children learn to add and subtract, but can you imagine using counters for showing how to find the product of two negative numbers? Believe it or not, Glencoe puts forth (on page 98) an ornate procedure for doing this: Students are supposed to use positive and negative counters, including "as many zero pairs as you need" -- but the procedure seems to be circular, because knowing the proper number of "zero pairs" that "you need" evidently requires foreknowledge of the product that is being sought.

As another example of Glencoe's contrived confrontations with manipulatives, let me cite "Representing Polynomials with Algebra Tiles" (page 710). The tile representing x is a square whose side is about three times as great as the side of the tile representing 1. Does this mean that x equals 3? Does it mean that x is equal to the square of 3? Is it supposed to imply that the sum of x + x + x is equal to x squared? I shudder to think of the tiles that would be needed for "representing" polynomials that contain third-power or fourth-power terms.

As they toil to reinvent arithmetic and elementary algebra, the students "verify" their discoveries by using something that already has been invented: a calculator. On pages 94 and 95, for example, the students' task is to multiply 74 by 76. You or I would do this by using long multiplication, which we learned in the fifth grade -- but long multiplication definitely isn't fuzzy, and fuzzy-math teachers might find it baffling. Accordingly, Glencoe has devised a procedure in which students begin by examining a table of factors and products (4 x 6 = 24, 14 x 16 = 224, 24 x 26 = 624, and so on). Then the students are supposed to find numerological patterns in the groups of digits forming each product, and then they are supposed to divine the groups of digits in the product of 74 x 76. Finally, they "Use a calculator to verify the result." This is but one of many exercises in which students do fuzzy things and then seek verification from the oracular calculator.

Though it is reasonable for Glencoe to teach something about the use of calculators, I have qualms about Glencoe's approach:

The emphasis on calculators in Glencoe Pre-Algebra leads me to make some comments about costs. One reason why this book has more than 800 pages is that it is swollen with pointless illustrations, tangential tales, racial frolics and other gimmicks -- gimmicks that may hypnotize and comfort fuzzy-math teachers but can only distract, confuse and impede students. Glencoe has incurred costs by contriving all those gimmicks, and by printing all the extra pages that are required for displaying them, and now such costs are reflected in the selling price of the book. Moreover, a school district that buys Glencoe Pre-Algebra must also buy Glencoe's toy-boxes of algebra tiles, "geoboards," equation mats and other fuzzy-math props. And then come the calculators -- perhaps to be bought by the district, perhaps to be bought by the students. At retail, the calculators will cost about $90 apiece [note 7] School-district officials should carefully weigh the expenses associated with using Glencoe Pre-Algebra, including the expenses imposed on students and the expenses imposed on teachers who use their own money to buy some of the instructional materials they use in their classrooms. Is Glencoe's swollen product worth all that money?

Ethnokitsch and Forgettable "History"

Like most of today's schoolbooks, Glencoe Pre-Algebra is full of ostentatious items that reflect the fad for promoting awareness of "cultures." The Glencoe writers have contrived a host of these things, which we can describe by borrowing a term from the art critic Robert Hughes: ethnokitsch. Most of Glencoe's ethnokitsch items are trivial and superficial, and they are significant only because they take up space, clutter pages, and create distractions. One item, however -- problem 41 on page 173 -- is worth analyzing. Here we see ethnokitsch at its worst.

Problem 41 carries the label "Social Studies." This signals that Glencoe's writers not only can produce ethnokitsch but also can comply with the fad that calls for devising "connections" between different subjects:

Social Studies     Chinese New Year, the most important holiday of the Chinese year, comes in late January or early February. The Chinese calendar follows an annual cycle, which repeats every twelve years. For example, 1996 was the Year of the Rat, so 1996+12 or 2008 and 1996-12 or 1984 are also the Year of the Rat.

a. 1998 is the Year of the Tiger. How old is the youngest person born in a Year of the Tiger?

b. List five years that are Years of the Rat.

As nearly as I can tell, the writers derived their material from a place-mat in a Chinese restaurant. They write as if the people who live in China today were still reckoning time by using the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. Not so. In their daily lives, today's Chinese use the same Gregorian calendar that we use.

After stating that a Chinese year starts "in late January or early February" of a Gregorian year, the writers go on to say that "1996 was the Year of the Rat." Let me paraphrase that: A Chinese year doesn't start when a Gregorian year starts, but Gregorian 1996 was identical with the most recent Year of the Rat [note 8]. Surely even an alternative-assessment student can see that 1996 couldn't have been a Chinese Year of the Rat if 1996 wasn't a Chinese year to begin with.

Now the writers ask a question: "How old is the youngest person born in a Year of the Tiger?" Let me explain why that question is absurd. Students who confront the Year-of-the-Tiger question today can't answer it because Glencoe's writers have failed to give necessary information: The most recent Year of the Tiger began on 28 January 1998 and ended on 15 February 1999. How about students who confronted the Year-of-the-Tiger question before 28 January 1998 arrived? [note 9] Those students could not have answered the question either, because they needed to know that the previous Year of the Tiger had ended on 28 January 1987. This information, too, is absent from Glencoe's book.

All of that silliness and absurdity could have been avoided if the Glencoe writers had possessed some real respect for Chinese culture and had written their problem wholly in terms of the Chinese lunar calendar. They could have given legitimate information about the Chinese calendar, and could have asked some legitimate questions, within that calendar's own framework. The pretense that Chinese lunar years correspond to Gregorian solar years is fortune-cookie stuff, and it just doesn't work -- as math, as history, or as anything else.

Readers of The Textbook Letter are familiar with the rule which states that the lame "history" invented by textbook-writers is never as interesting as the real history that the writers don't know [note 10] In Glencoe Pre-Algebra, this rule is confirmed by the Chinese-calendar problem and by many other items as well. On page 94, for instance, Glencoe's writers turn a famous story about Carl Gauss into colorless, pointless pap. Let me first show you how the story is told in a real book -- Paul Hoffman's The Man Who Loved Only Numbers [note 11]. Where Hoffman uses quotation marks, he is quoting the 20th-century mathematician Paul Erdos:

Insights and connections -- that's what mathematicians look for. Carl Friedrich Gauss, who was born in 1777 in Braunschweig, Germany, the son of a masonry foreman, was a master at exposing unsuspected connections. . . . Gauss was a mathematical prodigy, and in his old age he liked to tell stories of his childhood triumphs. Like the time, at the age of three, he spotted an error in his father's ledger and stopped him just as he was about to overpay his laborers. Like the fact that he could calculate before he could read.

And he certainly could calculate. At the age of ten, he was a show-off in arithmetic class at St. Catherine elementary school, "a squalid relic of the Middle Ages run by a virile brute, one Büttner, whose idea of teaching the hundred or so boys in his charge was to thrash them into such a state of terrified stupidity that they forgot their own names." One day, as Büttner paced the room, rattan cane in hand, he asked the boys to find the sum of all the whole numbers from 1 to 100. The student who solved the problem first was supposed to go and lay his slate on Büttner's desk; the next to solve it would lay his slate on top of the first slate, and so on. Büttner thought the problem would preoccupy the class, but after a few seconds Gauss rushed up, tossed his slate on the desk, and returned to his seat. Büttner eyed him scornfully, as Gauss sat there quietly for the next hour while his classmates completed their calculations. As Büttner turned over the slates, he saw one wrong answer after another, and his cane grew warm from constant use. Finally, he came to Gauss' slate, on which was written a single number, 5050, with no supporting arithmetic. Astonished, Büttner asked Gauss how he did it, "And when Gauss explained it to him," said Erdos, "the teacher realized that this was the most important event in his life and from then on worked with Gauss always," plying him with textbooks, for which "Gauss was grateful all his life."

What was Gauss' trick? In his mind, he apparently pictured writing the summation sequence twice, forward and backward, one sequence above the other . . . . Gauss realized that you could add the numbers vertically instead of horizontally. There are 100 vertical pairs, each summing to 101. So the answer is 100 times 101 divided by two, since each number is counted twice. Gauss easily did the arithmetic in his head.

Now here is Glencoe's version. Purged of all human interest, it is the most forgettable version that I ever have seen:

Carl F. Gauss (1777-1855), a famous German mathematician, taught himself to read and to make mathematical calculations. When he was 10 years old, his teacher asked the students in his class to find the sum of the numbers from 1 to 100. The teacher thought that this problem would keep the students busy for a long time, but young Gauss wrote the answer almost immediately.

That's all. The Glencoe writers then hasten to bury Gauss's wonderful insight under some questions and calculator exercises.

Sometimes, the "history" in Glencoe's book is not just vague and dull -- it's wrong. On page 618, for example, a geometric figure is accompanied by this caption:

The design shown at the right is called the Koch snowflake. It is made up of three rotated copies of the Koch curve, introduced by Helge von Koch, a mathematician who worked on fractal geometry. Fractals are self-similar. That is, if you look at any part of a fractal, you will see a miniature replica of the larger design. A tree of broccoli is an example of a fractal in nature. Each branch of the tree is a miniature replica of the entire tree.

The Swedish mathematician Niels Fabian Helge von Koch (1870-1924) developed the "snowflake" in 1905 or so. He evidently wanted it to exemplify figures that are continuous everywhere but differentiable nowhere. A figure is continuous if it holds water -- i.e., if there are no gaps in it. A figure is differentiable (loosely speaking) wherever it is smooth. A circle, for example, is smooth everywhere, while a square is smooth everywhere but at its sharp corners. In the Koch snowflake, however, no part is smooth. The entire figure consists of sharp corners, without any smooth lines connecting them.

The claim that Koch "worked on fractal geometry" exemplifies a kind of anachronistic distortion that occurs often in revisionist pseudohistory. (Here is another example: The "abstract expressionist" artists of the 1960s claimed that Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was one of their band.) In Koch's day, the term fractal did not exist. That term was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s, when fractal geometry emerged, with considerable help from Mandelbrot, as an important field of study. By the way: It is not always true that "if you look at any part of a fractal, you will see a miniature replica of the larger design." Nor is a broccoli plant a fractal.

Saving the Fishes

Glencoe's writers wander far and wide in their attempts to find dubious "connections," and the sheer breadth of the misinformation in Glencoe Pre-Algebra is astonishing. For example:

All of this notwithstanding, I believe that Glencoe Pre-Algebra could have been worse. Unlike the fuzzy-math texts that Marianne Jennings encountered, Glencoe Pre-Algebra does have some math in every chapter. Exercises and problems seem to be plentiful enough to enable students to practice and master the techniques that Glencoe's writers recommend. By regularly relating mathematical constructs to the physical world, the writers help to answer students' "Who cares?" questions. And the writers generally avoid the mistake of presenting problems which involve units, definitions or abbreviations that haven't yet been introduced -- a mistake that is common in some other books. These desirable features of Glencoe Pre-Algebra are offset, however, by the book's lack of rigor. Students who are starting to learn algebra should acquire some idea of what proofs are and why proofs are good things.

I'm glad that Glencoe pays attention to "mental math" and estimation. Learning to estimate correct answers is important, and it grows even more important as students tackle increasingly complex problems. I wish, however, that Glencoe's approach to developing mathematical intuition were more consistent. On page 417 a calculator "activity" shows a 45-degree line whose slope seems to be 2 instead of 1. I had to look carefully to discern that the scale used on the vertical axis differs from the scale used on the horizontal axis. This surely cannot help students to develop an intuitive appreciation of how the m in y = mx + b affects a line's appearance.

I recently heard about a math teacher who was scouring used-book sales and looking for out-of-print math textbooks. He felt that the newer books were nearly worthless, so he was assembling his own private stock of textbooks that really taught math. After reading Glencoe Pre-Algebra, I can understand why.


  1. "Rain-Forest Algebra and MTV Geometry" appeared in The Textbook Letter for November-December 1996. [return to text]

  2. See The New York Review of Books for 24 September 1998. Gardner's article is an excellent review of current trends and fads in the teaching of math. Gardner ran the "Mathematical Games" section of Scientific American for many years, and he probably has been more effective than any other living author in stimulating popular interest in mathematics. [return to text]

  3. For information about Roots, see the second review of McDougal Littell's America's Past and Promise in The Textbook Letter, September-October 1997. [return to text]

  4. See "A Comparison of How Textbooks Teach Mathematical Problem Solving in Japan and the United States," by Richard E. Mayer, Valerie Sims and Hidetsugu Tajika, in the American Educational Research Journal, Summer 1995. [return to text]

  5. See "The Second Great Math Rebellion," by Tom Loveless, in Education Week for 15 October 1997. This article is a basic description of the follies of fuzzy math. [return to text]

  6. See "A Dumbed-Down Textbook Is 'A Textbook For All Students' " in The Textbook Letter, May-June 1997, page 7. See also Anne Westwater's review of Holt's Essentials of Biology in The Textbook Letter, January-February 1998. [return to text]

  7. I recently tried to find a TI-82 for sale at retail in the Boston area, but I didn't succeed. However, I did find that stores were selling the TI-83, which is similar to the TI-82 in most ways and seems to be the TI-82's successor. The retail price was close to $90. I was looking for calculators because a close friend of mine has two nieces who attend a public high school, and the school requires each of its students to have a TI-82 or TI-83. The cost of two TI-83s, with sales tax, would be nearly $200, and the girls' family doesn't have $200 to spend on short notice. I'm sure that buying TI-82s or TI-83s would be a hardship for other families too. I am reminded of an ugly joke from the Reagan era: "No one is poor anymore -- at least, no one who counts." [return to text]

  8. In fact, the most recent Year of the Rat began in 1996 on 21 February -- not in "early February" -- and ended on 6 February 1997. [return to text]

  9. The copyright date on Glencoe Pre-Algebra is 1997, which tells us that Glencoe delivered copies of this book to schools as early as 1996. [return to text]

  10. See, for instance, "Robin Who?" in The Textbook Letter, September-October 1998. [return to text]

  11. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth, issued in 1998 by Hyperion (New York City). [return to text]

Tom VanCourt is a software engineer. His review in this issue originated from his work with a charitable organization that makes audiotapes of textbooks, for use by blind or dyslexic students. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.


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