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Simple Issues

Illinois math teaching doesn't add up

Illinois Times

August 1, 1991

A piece prompted by the news that less than a third of Illinois' eighth-graders were being taught math by teachers who had even an undergraduate major in the subject.


Parents wouldn't dream of sending their children to a plumber to have their teeth filled but they willingly send them to English majors to learn their fractions.


There I was, standing in line at Osco's. The store's computerized cash registers had crashed, leaving the hapless high schoolers who were running the checkout lanes to calculate purchase totals and tax and to make change by hand. A man in front of me—the kind of guy who enjoyed pulling the wings off butterflies as a boy, probably—paid for his forty-six-cent purchase by handing the clerk two quarters and a penny. She looked as if she was going to cry.


No one who has watched our young struggle with the simple mathematics of making change can have been surprised therefore by the results of the most recent National Assessment Governing Board's survey of math skills. Fewer than half the high school seniors tested in thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia had mastered eighth grade math. Only five percent of them could do the math expected of kids their age who live in the more advanced nations.


When it comes to teaching math, U.S. methods clearly don't add up. The survey especially disappointed taxpayers who recall that the public schools undertook a back-to-the-basics movement in math teaching nearly a decade ago. Alas, nothing sets back U.S. public education more than attempts to move it forward. The back-to-basics movement stressed rote memorization at the expense of mathematical reasoning. So rare is the ability to think and count at the same time that a kid who ranks in the 89th percentile in computational skills on one of the popular standardized tests and the 91st percentile in "concepts and applications" will rank in the 92nd percentile in terms of his combined score.


Most of the experts interviewed by the radio talk shows to Explain What It All Means insisted that our teaching methods are out of date. They did not explain why, if methods are the problem, Asian students taught in the same ways tend to do better than whites or blacks or Hispanics in math. Or why, if math teaching methods haven't changed in twenty years, student performance has.


Our approach to teaching math is not out of date so much as it is out of touch. A public school system dedicated to the idea that the point of a general education is getting a job as a clerk has imbued us all with the notion that the point of mathematics is getting an answer rather than understanding a process. Math is about relationships, not calculations—something that comes as news to all those kids who looked like Einsteins when it came to memorizing multiplication facts but were revealed as mathematical morons when they hit algebra.


"Out of date" is the preferred explanation of our education professional because it sounds better than "incompetent." Teaching takes more than reading exercises out of a textbook, no matter what the teachers' unions say. One reason so few of our teachers chose to major in math is that they, like most Americans who graduated from traditional schools, grew up hating it—a feeling most of them no doubt convey unmistakably to their students.


Illinois's professional educators were quick to defend the state's school establishment against imputations of incompetence. One state school bureaucrat blamed the state's poor ting a showing in the survey (twenty-second out of thirty-eight) on the black kids living in places like Chicago's South Side. He pointed out that the top-scoring states like Minnesota do not have sizable inner-city black ghettos whose students are notorious for school administrators' reputations by dragging down test averages.


But while kids living in what the test-givers call "disadvantaged urban" areas of Illinois scored only 236 out of a possible 500 points on the test (47 percent), the "advantaged urban" kids (a group that includes residents of our posher suburbs) scored only 281 (56 percent). The latter result hardly seems worth bragging on, since it means that Illinois's most able student group could not top the best state average.


Robert Leininger, Illinois school superintendent, has said that teaching kids math will require more money for in-service teacher training and a "restructuring [of] the state's school recognition process." It will also require the provision of what he called "appropriate learning tools for classroom use." Let us hope that among those tools will be teachers who know what they're teaching about. Less than a third of Illinois's eighth graders are being taught math by teachers who have even an undergraduate major in the subject. (We went back to the basics only to find that most teachers aren't prepared to teach them.) Parents wouldn't dream of sending their children to a plumber to have their teeth filled but they willingly send them to English majors to learn their fractions.


It would seem simple enough for the state to tell school boards that they will lose their accreditation if they don't hire people to teach math who actually know something about it. But as we are constantly being told, these are issues so complicated that only trained educational professionals can understand them. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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