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New Curriculum, Old Issues

by Marvin Lazerson, Judith Block McLaughlin & Bruce McPherson - 1984

The educational reform movement of the 1950s and 1960s offered insight into the complexities and difficulites of current trends to implement educational change. Two efforts to change curriculum, "new mathematics" and "new social studies," show how the reform began and problems that were encountered. (Source: ERIC)

This article is drawn from Marvin Lazerson, Judith Block McLaughlin, Bruce McPherson, and Stephen K. Bailey, An Education of Value (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Americans are both historically oriented and ahistorical. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current debates over school reform. Recent reports on the state of American education lament low academic standards in the schools, call for a return to a lost rigor, and insist on going back to the basics. Yet, even as we hold up the past as a standard, we lack understanding of what actually happened in the past. State departments of education are rewriting curriculum guides in attempts to strengthen the commitment to learning. School districts are trimming their curricular offerings and stiffening graduation requirements. In the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, laws are being passed to improve science, mathematics, technology, and foreign language instruction. And teachers are being warned to take the academic content of their work more seriously.

As serious as the grounds of criticism are, there is nevertheless a déjà vu quality to these concerns. They are reminiscent of criticism raised some twenty-five to thirty years ago. The 1950s and 1960s were the most intense periods of curricular reform in American educational history, when the curricula of virtually every academic discipline were under examination. “New math” was substituted for the “old” arithmetic; new physics, chemistry, and biology captured science education; “new social studies” and transformational grammar competed with the familiar history, civics, and grammar courses. The curriculum reformers were determined to improve the course offerings of an educational system they believed uninspiring, unintellectual, and insufficiently challenging for its most gifted students. At no other time in the nation’s history were so many eminent university scholars involved in designing school curricula or was so much money available for their efforts.

The educational reformers did not realize their dreams. As they attempted to implement their ideas, they found the task more difficult than they had foreseen. The reformers encountered a host of conflicts in local communities, in the schools, in the academic community, and in their own thinking about education. What seemed clear—the pursuit of academic excellence—became less certain in the shifting sands of implementation and ideological assumptions.

The rhetoric of these earlier curriculum-reform efforts was impelled by the perceived need to compete with the Soviets in space and to triumph in the Cold War. Today’s rhetoric is markedly similar, with the Japanese economy having been added to the threat. But the earlier reform period differed from that of today in its optimism. Reformers were confident that their new programs would substantially change the content of schooling, and that the American educational system would triumph. Jerome Bruner captured the optimistic mood when he wrote in 1960 that “something new was stirring in the land.” Distinguished mathematicians at the University of Colorado, the University of Illinois, and Stanford University were writing new textbooks for schools and teaching young children fundamental mathematical concepts: “first class biologists” in Kansas City were producing films for school biology courses; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists were preparing an “ideal” physics course for high school students; and chemists in Portland, Oregon, drafted a new chemistry program. In the social sciences, movement to transform the curriculum was beginning. “Educators and psychologists,” Bruner concluded, “were examining anew the nature of teaching methods and curricula and were becoming increasingly ready to examine fresh approaches.” Their hope was for nothing less than a revolution in the nature of students’ encounters with academic subjects as they modernized course content, introduced new teaching materials, and conveyed to students the excitement of scientific and intellectual inquiry.1

What occurred during this period of intense reform efforts is important to our understanding of curriculum reform because it alerts us to be wary of easy rhetoric and simple panaceas. At a time when almost everyone is for higher academic standards and excellence in curriculum, it is imperative to reflect on the complexities and difficulties of educational change. As we debate what constitutes a valued school program, we need to keep the lessons of past curriculum-reform efforts clearly in mind. To point to some of these lessons, we examine two prominent efforts to reform the curriculum in the 1950s and 1960s, the “new mathematics” and the “new social studies.” These case studies show the high aspirations with which the curriculum reform began and the extensive work that went into the planning, preparation, pilot testing, and evaluation of materials. They reveal why the curriculum-reform movement, which began with such promise, was a disappointment. And they suggest how today’s efforts can profit from the lessons of the past.2


The story of the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG) begins with two meetings in February 1958. At the first meeting, the Chicago Conference on Research Potential and Training, research mathematicians expressed concern over the low numbers and poor preparation of students electing their field of study. Convinced that the mathematics profession should direct attention to school mathematics programs, the Chicago Conference participants passed a resolution calling for the president of the American Mathematical Society to appoint a committee “to seek funds from suitable sources and proceed toward a solution of the problem” of school mathematics instruction.3

Participants in a second meeting, the Mathematics Meeting of the National Science Foundation, held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, exactly one week later, seconded the Chicago Conference resolution. Their meeting had been held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology so that participants could meet with MIT faculty who were involved in the development of a new high school physics curriculum. The mathematicians were impressed with the content and experiential approach of the new physics materials. They wanted to see similar curriculum reform in mathematics, and they recommended that the president of the American Mathematical Society immediately appoint a planning committee to organize a curriculum-reform effort for mathematics.

The interest expressed by the mathematicians was not surprising. Mathematics instruction had been a focus of curriculum-reform efforts since the early 1950s. The University of Illinois Committee on School Mathematics (UICSM), the first major national curriculum project, was a model for other projects with its emphasis on the role of university-based researchers and on “learning-through-discovery” teaching methods. In 1955 the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) had appointed a commission “to review the existing secondary school mathematics curriculum, and to make recommendations for its modernization, modification, and improvement,” with special attention addressed to the “college-capable student.“4 Two years later, mathematicians at the University of Maryland established the University of Maryland Mathematics Project, bringing together university mathematicians with schoolteachers to prepare experimental mathematics courses for grades seven and eight.

Although American Mathematical Society President Richard Brauer took seriously the two conference recommendations, he nevertheless proceeded cautiously. The American Mathematical Society, the senior and most prestigious mathematics association in the country, had long remained removed from considerations of school curriculum. Only after Brauer had secured the support of the society’s executive committee did he name eight university mathematicians to a new committee and asked Edward G. Begle of Yale University to serve as project director. Backing by the American Mathematical Society gave the curriculum-reform project prominence and credibility. Now it was respectable, even admirable, for senior mathematicians to devote time to the development of school curriculum.

The new committee, the School Mathematics Study Group, invited forty five mathematics teachers and researchers to Yale University for a five-week summer program in 1958. Twenty-one of the participants were high school teachers and curriculum supervisors; twenty-one were college and university professors; and three participants represented the RAND Corporation, Bell Laboratories, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The teachers and curriculum supervisors came from many of the nation’s most respected high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science, Phillips Academy, New Trier Township High School, Newton High School, and University High School of the University of Chicago. The participants comprised authorities in mathematics education, authors of popular textbooks, and officials of local, state, and national professional organizations. For high school and college mathematics teachers, writing school curriculum together was a new experience.

Their assignment was difficult: In five weeks, the forty-five mathematicians were expected to reach a common definition of a mathematics program, and they had to draft detailed outlines of mathematics texts for that program. These outlines had to be prepared in sufficient detail so that they could be field-tested in classrooms during the coming school year and revised and expanded into full texts the following summer. Rather than tackling the entire span of schooling, the SMSG Advisory Committee asked the summer writers to develop curriculum for college-capable students in grades seven through twelve, that is, those students in the top third of mathematics ability who were believed most likely to pursue careers requiring training in mathematics.

The participants agreed that the mathematics curriculum in schools needed change. While research mathematics had changed in the previous decade, school mathematics had remained the same. The mathematicians wanted the school curriculum to emphasize basic concepts rather than the current emphasis on computational skills. They believed that students should develop an understanding of the logic and structure of mathematics and that they should learn mathematical vocabulary.

The participants organized themselves into work teams broken down by school year (grades 7 and 8, 9, 10, 11, 12), with each team carefully arranged to include an equal number of secondary school teachers and college professors. The composition of these groups reflected the SMSG staff’s commitment to ensuring that the perspectives and expertise of both teachers and professors were involved in curriculum development. After these groups were formed, each team had to wrestle with difficult questions of scope, approach, goals, content, emphasis, level of difficulty, and presentation of course materials.

In thinking through the instructional issues, not all teams started from scratch. The two mathematics curriculum projects that preceded SMSG—the University of Illinois Committee on School Mathematics and the University of Maryland Mathematics Project—were available to the SMSG writers, as were copies of the College Entrance Examination Board’s Commission on Mathematics preliminary report. As the teams produced new curriculum outlines, their peers reviewed them. Issues were discussed and debated, drafts closely scrutinized. No draft was considered final until it had been edited many times. After five weeks of intense work, the job was complete: Curriculum outlines were ready for field-testing.

The curriculum outlines were distributed to teachers in the fall of 1958 from “centers” located across the country. Each center was staffed with a chairman who identified local teachers to field-test the units and a consultant who assisted teachers with instructional problems. Because the consultants were college mathematicians, all centers were located near a college or university. The school year began with an orientation program for participating teachers designed to familiarize them with the SMSG materials and to stimulate their excitement and enthusiasm for the curriculum-reform movement.

Over the course of the 1958/1959 school year, the SMSG staff grew in size as the work expanded in scope. Additional writers were selected to continue writing the text outlines and to prepare monographs to supplement these texts. A panel on in-service training was assigned responsibility for developing teacher-education materials. To spread the word about SMSG, a newsletter was published and SMSG project director Ed Begle spoke about the project at mathematics meetings across the country.

In the summer of 1959, 101 mathematics teachers and researchers took part in SMSG’s second summer writing session. As in the previous summer, the writers faced tight publication deadlines: In less than six weeks they had to produce a completed secondary-school textbook series; in two weeks, they had to complete one-third of this series so that it could be printed for classroom use in September. By the end of the second summer session, the SMSG writers had published textbooks and accompanying teacher commentaries for grades seven through twelve. Their success in meeting production deadlines inspired the SMSG Advisory Board to cast its net wider, while a third grant from the National Science Foundation (bringing the total SMSG had received from the agency to over $4 million) made further activities possible. The original SMSG textbook series was directed to secondary-school students in the top third of mathematical ability. Now the focus would include curriculum for non-college bound secondary-school students (students in the 25 to 75 percent range of mathematical ability), and materials for elementary students in grades four through six.

Eighty-seven research mathematicians and mathematics educators participated in SMSG’s third writing session in the summer of 1960. They polished the college-capable textbook series, developed outlines for a new elementary school series, and revised the college-capable series for use by “students with undeveloped mathematical talent,” the name given to the non-college bound students in the 25 to 75 percent ability range. By the end of the summer, they had completed the entire series of textbooks for college-capable students and had created outlines of the additional instructional materials.

By the 196011961 school year, it seemed to many that mathematics education was on the verge of a revolution. Over 130,000 new textbooks for college-capable students were in classrooms; an additional 15,000 curriculum outlines were being field-tested. High-powered academic mathematicians and school mathematics teachers had collaborated over the previous four years with a remarkable degree of enthusiasm, commitment, and success. Together, they had introduced probably the most innovative and challenging mathematics curriculum materials ever produced for American schoolchildren. Even the young and the less-capable students were going to learn the “new math.” Agreeing with the mathematicians’ own favorable assessment of their efforts, the National Science Foundation granted SMSG an additional $1,184,000 and, in 1961, SMSG’s Advisory Board voted to have SMSG “continue indefinitely.”

Activities mounted. A fourth summer writing session in 1961 produced completed elementary school textbooks and revised secondary texts. By fall 1961, school orders of SMSG textbooks for grades seven through twelve had reached over 500,000. Over the next few years, SMSG prepared a series of materials for teachers and a collection of monographs for mathematic-ally talented students, revised its original textbooks, added materials for kindergarten through third grade, translated the secondary-school textbooks into Spanish for use in Puerto Rico, experimented with the development of texts for programmed learning, and established a film center to create films for classroom use and teacher in-service training.

SMSG had undertaken the development of textbooks with the understanding that it would remain in the textbook business only until such time as commercial publishers had incorporated the new content and approaches into their own offerings. SMSG did not see itself as replacing the commercial publishing industry. According to Ed Begle, SMSG’s contribution lay in providing publishers a “concrete example of the kind of curriculum that we thought both feasible and appropriate for today’s children.“5 Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, commercial publishers moved quickly to develop textbooks in line with the widely publicized “modern” approach. As they did so, SMSG turned its attention to other areas, attempting to develop experimental curricula and to sponsor research in school mathematics.

From the outset, SMSG had been interested in assessing the effectiveness of its new materials. In 1962, SMSG launched a large-scale evaluation, the National Longitudinal Study of Mathematical Achievement, which followed more than 120,000 students over five years of mathematical study. Completed in 1967, the study produced a mixed picture. Students who had used the SMSG series performed somewhat better in areas of comprehension, analysis, and application—exactly the areas the curriculum reformers had been most concerned about. But mathematics education traditionally involved computation, the relatively simple skills of adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying numbers. Here the Longitudinal Study was less positive: The students who used SMSG appeared slightly less able to handle computation than those who had used more traditional textbooks. Reviewers of the study pulled back from reaching definitive conclusions, arguing that a comparison of the outcomes of the different approaches to mathematics was “exceedingly difficult and complex, leading to few generalizations.” Other tests, however, found similar data: Students using the SMSG tests usually scored higher on conceptual measures and lower on computation measures than students exposed to other textbook series. Surveying these results, one mathematician concluded, “A modern schoolboy knows that the sum of two natural numbers is a natural number, but he doesn’t know which one!“6

By the time the Longitudinal Study was completed in 1967, the whole experiment in mathematics curriculum reform had become controversial. Reactions of mathematicians, mathematics teachers, and parents to the new math curriculum ranged from strong endorsement to harsh condemnation. The mathematics community was itself divided as to the merits of the new curriculum. Many mathematicians were enthusiastic about the SMSG texts: although the texts were not perfect, they believed that the content and approach were vastly superior to those of previous textbooks. Opponents argued that the SMSG curriculum was too abstract, that it did not provide enough examples of practical applications of mathematics, and that it was appropriate only for students who would pursue careers in mathematics or mathematics-based disciplines.

Many teachers were also apprehensive about the new approach to mathematics instruction. Their lack of enthusiasm took the curriculum reformers by surprise. The early users of the texts, both teachers and students, had responded favorably to the new presentation of material. In 1965, William Wooton wrote that “almost all of the teachers who have used SMSG textbooks look upon them as presenting significantly better mathematics, in a much more meaningful manner, than those to which they had been accustomed.“7 As the new texts were distributed more widely, however, they met with greater criticism. In order to teach new math, teachers had to learn new vocabulary and concepts. The new mathematics curriculum also required teachers to assume a different role in the classroom. In place of the structure of the conventional mathematics lesson—teacher explanation followed by student exercises—the new curriculum called for an open exchange between teachers and students. Mathematics learning, which had traditionally been based on right and wrong answers and right and wrong ways to arrive at those answers, became open to negotiation. Neither the answers nor the approach to achieving them was certain. The approach emphasized variety, questioning, and criticism as essential to understanding.

This new instructional format ran into direct conflict with what Seymour Sarason described as the “highly over learned attitudes and ways of thinking” that many teachers had about teaching mathematics. Teachers, Sarason reported, had mixed reactions. While many were caught up in the enthusiasm, the intellectual stimulation, the novelty and prestige of the new math, many were also worried about their ability to teach the new material. “They became increasingly anxious as it became increasingly clear that the new math was indeed new [to most of them], that learning it to a criterion of security was not going to be easy, and that summer workshops of five weeks duration might expose their insecurity and, in the case of some, their inadequacy.“8 Teachers who did not have summer training in the use of SMSG or did not have access to curriculum supervisors familiar with the new curriculum, as many did not, found the new textbooks especially difficult to use. The textbooks posed particular problems for elementary-school teachers, who usually had limited training in mathematics. The SMSG elementary texts varied the most from the traditional curriculum, introducing new concepts such as sets, non decimal bases, prime numbers, and factors.

If new math was confusing to many teachers, it was even more bewildering to parents. What was this new math and why was it superior to the arithmetic they had been taught? Parents’ skepticism turned to frustration and irritation when they found themselves unable to assist their children with their homework. Many could not make any sense of it and found their children’s discussions of their mathematics classes almost incomprehensible. Comedian songwriter and MIT mathematics professor Tom Lehrer captured their feelings:

Some of you who have small children may

have perhaps been in the embarrassing position

of being unable to do your child’s arithmetic homework

because of the current revolution in mathematics

teaching known as “new math.” . . .

In the new approach, the important thing is to

understand what you’re doing rather than to

get the right answer.

Hooray for new math, hooray for new math.

It won’t do you a bit of good to read new math.

It’s so simple, so very simple, that only a child can do it.9

By the end of the 1960s, the new math was in retreat. In part, like much else in the curriculum-reform efforts of the 1950s and early 1960s it was a victim of a shift in priorities toward compensatory learning that marked the debates over equality during the last half of the decade. This shift resulted in a de facto turning away from intellectual rigor. But the new-math reformers also misunderstood the process of changing schools. SMSG had begun with the best and the brightest: top-flight mathematicians and mathematics teachers from the best high schools in the country. They wrote curriculum for the most capable secondary-school students, those most likely to carry their mathematics lessons into advanced mathematics and science courses at the university, and then into mathematics and science careers. On the heels of this success, the less academically able and the young would receive attention. Success at the top would spill over to those at the bottom.

Such an approach would have been controversial no matter what the curriculum content. Once local school districts had to make hard choices about where to expend their funds, the academic elitism of the mathematics programs would undoubtedly become a target. But the nature of the new mathematics itself seriously violated what many believed schools, and school mathematics in particular, were supposed to be about. The reformers’ enthusiasm for the radical postwar era changes in mathematics was not shared, or understood, by the general public. Lay people and educators continued to assume that mathematics first and foremost meant computation and practical applications. They were confused and bothered by the emphasis on abstract mathematics in the new-math texts. The mathematics reformers wanted to revolutionize mathematics teaching. But the revolution was not to be.

The new-math reformers underestimated how difficult it was to change the culture of the school. To the thousands of mathematics teachers, many of whom actually knew very little advanced mathematics, the curriculum reforms required extraordinary efforts at learning new material and adopting new teaching methods. Teachers were usually expected to learn and teach under the same working conditions that had always made drill, simple-to-mark workbooks and worksheets, and standard textbooks attractive teaching techniques. Principals and teachers became skeptical about the worth and the practicality of the new curriculum. They were confused about what the new math meant; cautious, if not antagonistic, to reforms that increased their work load and required that they change their teaching; and defensive about the increasing complaints from parents and students. Increasingly, they returned to the familiar format and content of traditional textbooks. Although some new mathematics concepts found their way into these commercial texts, the most popular textbooks were far more traditional. The enthusiasm for mathematics reform of those summer months in 1958-1962 had been extraordinary. It seemed for that brief period that the commitments to the new curriculum would be infectious. Less than a decade later, however, both the enthusiasm and the commitment had disappeared.


As the new mathematics and science curricula were being nationally distributed in the 1960s, scholars in other academic disciplines were designing new instructional programs in their subject areas. The social studies unit Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) was produced during this second expanded phase of curriculum development. The impetus for the curriculum evolved out of the earlier mathematics and science projects. The curriculum was distributed in the 1960s, and in the 1970s became the focus of national controversy.10

In 1962, the staff of Educational Services Inc. (ESI),11 a nonprofit organization created by the developers of the Physical Science Study Committee, received a grant from the Ford Foundation to begin work on a new “Social Studies and Humanities Program.” Some ESI scholars wanted to start designing new curriculum materials immediately; others thought that they should first articulate a coherent conceptual framework for social studies education. Proceeding along the former course, Harvard anthropologist Douglas Oliver assembled a team to begin developing a curriculum for grades one through six. He commissioned the preparation of two film series, one of the Netsilik Eskimos of Northern Canada, and one of baboons in African game parks. The films were intended to place students in the role of ethno graphic; they showed the culture of the Eskimos and the behavior of the baboons without any commentary, leaving students to interpret the actions themselves. Meanwhile, a second group of scholars, led by Jerome Bruner, attempted an intellectual prospectus derived from the social sciences for the new ESI social studies unit.

The first of the curricula produced under Oliver’s supervision, a unit on the origin of cities, was field-tested and evaluated in 1963 and 1964. In fall 1964, Oliver turned over the leadership of the ESI project to Bruner. This change in leadership meant a significant shift in the course of the curriculum development. Whereas Oliver’s units were largely anthropological in orientation, Bruner was interested in designing an interdisciplinary program. Whereas Oliver had set in motion the writing of units for each grade, one through six, Bruner focused on developing one ungraded unit directed at students in the upper elementary grades. In place of the heavy concentration on content in the Oliver units, Bruner sought a curriculum that would enhance general understanding of the social sciences and foster the development of cognitive skills.

Over the course of the 1964/1965 academic year, the new social studies program began to take shape. Named Man: A Course of Study, the curriculum addressed three questions: “What is human about human beings? How did they get that way? How can they be made more so?“12 The curriculum planners designed materials around five themes: social organization, language, belief systems, technology, and childhood. Once materials were drafted, the MACOS course was ready to be tried in actual classrooms.

MACOS was tested in the summer of 1965 in an elementary school summer program in Newton, Massachusetts, widely considered one of the country’s most sophisticated and preeminent school systems. With almost as many staff members taking part in the summer school as students (sixty-one staff13 to seventy-five students), every part of the program was duly recorded and extensively evaluated. Each morning, teachers taught pupils using the new course materials; each afternoon, the entire staff discussed the morning’s experience; each evening, the curriculum team wrote and revised the next day’s lesson plan. By the summer’s end, the ESI staff had collected a massive amount of data on MACOS. The program had been intense, but it had also been exhilarating.

In the winter of 1965, the curriculum planners began a cycle of curriculum development and classroom teaching: Materials were designed, field-tested, and then revised. At the same time, the training of teachers was begun under the direction of sociologist Anita Mishler of the ESI staff. Although ESI had originally planned for teacher training to begin after the curriculum was fully drafted, Mishler wanted to orient teachers to the curriculum’s new content and pedagogy immediately and wanted this training to be simultaneous with the curriculum development. Up to that point, only a few teachers-for the most part, individuals who were known to the Harvard and MIT faculty participating in the curriculum development-had been involved in discussions about MACOS.

During spring 1966, Mishler worked with two groups of teachers, fourteen experienced teachers from the Newton school system and ten student teachers from Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She found that teachers in both groups were uncomfortable teaching MACOS. Not only was the subject matter entirely new to most teachers but the open-ended format caused anxiety among many—a finding that replicated the new-math experience. Since the MACOS curriculum ruled out prescribing what direction students’ inquiries should take, each session was unpredictable. The teacher had to guide students’ questions sensitively toward the lesson’s conceptual objective. To teach MACOS effectively, teachers had to be thoroughly familiar with the subject matter and fully aware of the curriculum’s conceptual aims. According to the MACOS teacher’s guide, “a lesson plan is not a script . . . only a framework within which the most challenging work is still to be accomplished.”14

In 1966, the MACOS materials were tested in a second summer school program. Each classroom was staffed with one ESI head teacher and four teachers from the ESI teacher-training program (two experienced and two student teachers). Throughout the summer a team of independent evaluators hired by ESI closely monitored the use of the curriculum. During the 1966/1967 academic year, the information they gathered was used by the ESI staff to guide their revisions of the MACOS curriculum.

By spring 1967, the curriculum was complete. The first units examined animal behavior through the life cycle of the salmon and the behavior of herring gulls and baboons. Later units considered different human societies, focusing on the culture of the Netsilik Eskimos and the African Bushmen. The juxtaposition of animal and human behaviors served to illustrate commonalities as well as the uniqueness of humans; the presentation of traditional societies showed how cultures developed by adapting to environmental conditions. Lessons were presented through ethnographic films, replicas of archeological objects, short stories, simulated diaries, and anthropological handbooks, games, and textbooks.

With the curriculum materials in place, the ESI staff notified commercial publishers that the curriculum was available. ESI wanted to retain control over the content and design of MACOS, but their confidence about finding someone to accept these terms was shaken as publisher after publisher reviewed and rejected the curriculum. Publishers explained that the course content and pedagogy of MACOS would make it difficult to market, and that few schools were likely to substitute MACOS for the American history customarily taught in the fifth grade. They told the MACOS developers that their stress on inductive methods, small-group instruction, teacher as participant rather than authority, and multimedia design was a formidable obstacle to adoption by teachers. The publishers claimed, according to Peter Dow, that “teachers want simple programs . . . that are easy to teach and that require a minimum of preparation.” The series, they believed, was potentially controversial and too costly, approximately $6,000 for a five-classroom set, eight times what schools usually spent on social studies material.15

The publishers painted a grim picture of curriculum improvement: School systems not interested in buying anything dramatically different; teachers able to teach only simple programs; no one wanting controversy. The premise of the MACOS reformers that publishing houses might be their allies in curriculum reform was wrong. By assuming that the creativity inherent in the new curriculum would sweep aside traditional social studies teaching, the reformers failed to recognize the constraints on school systems to institute major changes.

Even as ESI searched for a commercial publisher, a growing number of teachers requested the curriculum. Because of the reformers’ belief that no teacher should use MACOS without training in the use of the curriculum materials, this meant an increased need for teacher training; but because of the complexity of the new social studies curriculum, exposing teachers to the content was not sufficient. As Mishler concluded, teachers needed “an occasion . . . to reexamine their assumptions about teaching, to rethink the role of schooling in society, and to participate in the process of educational change.”16 She drafted a “parallel curriculum” for teachers who were using MACOS to encourage them to reassess their pedagogical beliefs and approaches, but such a sophisticated program required considerable time to create and money to implement. In the meantime, more immediate needs had to be addressed.

To make MACOS available to more teachers, ESI ran training programs for workshop leaders in the summer of 1968 in Colorado, California, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Their success led ESI to propose that MACOS dissemination, evaluation, and teacher training become decentralized. ESI encouraged participants to seek funds for regional training centers; a year later, eleven colleges and universities had received NSF funds to establish dissemination projects.

The dissemination efforts gained momentum as the search for a commercial publisher ground to a halt. An organization was needed that could develop a profit-sharing alternative to the dissemination system supported by NSF. Several organizations expressed interest in this new arrangement; after careful consideration of two proposals, ESI decided to sign a contract with the Curriculum Development Associates of Washington, D.C.

In the fall of 1970, 918 teachers and 22,163 students were using MACOS. Although Mishler’s parallel-curriculum program could not be fully implemented for lack of funding, the ongoing ESI evaluations of the use of MACOS indicated that dissemination was working well. A three-year comprehensive evaluation released in 1970 concluded that the MACOS curriculum was successfully accomplishing its objectives. “The materials,” the report stated, “have revitalized the social studies classroom, and their integration with an interactive pedagogy seems to serve well the upper elementary grade youngsters for whom the course was designed.” The final report of a Marin County, California, study of various “new social studies curricula” used in their schools found that “the curricular program developed by the Educational Development Center entitled Man: A Course of Study obtained responses far more positive than any other program that was widely tested.” Still other evaluations in such scattered locations as Bellevue, Washington; Nashville, Tennessee; and Ashland, Oregon, gave the MACOS unit high marks. In 1969, the American Educational Research Association cited Jerome Bruner for his “leadership in coordinating the work of other scholars, classroom teachers, media specialists, and curriculum developers to produce the fifth-grade, multi-media program Man: A Course of Study. “The citation quoted one evaluator who considered MACOS “one of the most important efforts of our time to relate research findings and theory in educational psychology to the development of new and better instructional materials.” These accolades gratified the reformers.17

The story of the curriculum was far from over, however. The first indication of problems came in 1970 when a Lake City, Florida, group, calling itself  “Citizens for Moral Education,” accused the MACOS curriculum of favoring “sex education, evolution, hippie-yippic philosophy, pornography, gun control, and communism,” and demanded that it be removed from classroom use immediately.18 The anti-MACOS group held meetings, distributed leaflets, and purchased time on a local radio program. In response, the Lake City School Board listened to arguments for and against the curriculum and decided that instruction in MACOS should be made elective and that a traditional social studies course should be made available to those who opted out of MACOS classes. Forty-five of the 360 students taking the course asked to transfer from MACOS to the traditional course; the following year, MACOS was dropped from school offerings altogether.

The Florida debate had barely ended when another began in Montgomery County, Maryland. Although the attacks against MACOS in Maryland were less fiery than those in Florida, the Maryland skirmish suggested that the Florida fight was not a rare, isolated event. In 1971, MACOS came under attack in Phoenix, Arizona, where, Dow argues, opponents treated the curriculum “as an alien intrusion on established ways of thinking about American society, as a subversive program designed to undermine the values inherent in familiar textbook courses like The Free and the Brave.“19 Before long, debates over the use of MACOS spread to other school districts, including Bellevue, Washington; Burlington, Vermont; and Corinth, New York. With each attack, opposition grew more vehement and more sophisticated. Whereas early critics had accused MACOS of all ills, from atheism to communism, the later attacks were addressed directly to the social studies curriculum’s content, pedagogy, and underlying assumptions. Critics from different localities shared information and joined forces. A growing professional network of MACOS teachers was matched by an emerging network of opposition to the curriculum.

In 1976 the controversy over MACOS moved onto the national stage. In the U.S. Congress, Arizona Congressman John Conlan questioned a line item of $110,000 to fund “informational workshops” for MACOS in the National Science Foundation’s budget. Conlan argued that the federal government should not finance a curriculum “designed to mold children’s social attitudes and beliefs along lines that are almost always at variance with the beliefs and social values of their parents and local communities.” Furthermore, he said, the federal government should not finance curriculum development at all, since, by doing so, it placed itself in direct competition with the commercial publishing industry.

Conlan’s position was supported by many local groups as well as by several national associations, most prominent being the Council for Basic Education and the Heritage Foundation. In response to Conlan’s charges, the House Committee established a review subcommittee; the National Science Foundation initiated its own internal review of the MACOS curriculum: and the General Accounting Office began an investigation of ESI’s use of funding for MACOS. When the issue of funding came to a vote, several congressmen took strong pro-MACOS positions. Others argued against Conlan on the grounds that Congress should not set itself up as a censor. After considerable discussion in both the House and the Senate, the MACOS appropriation was passed.

In time, MACOS was cleared by all federal review bodies. But the damage had been done. The fight over the curriculum had consumed time and money. It brought MACOS a national notoriety that made school administrations skittish about using the curriculum in their own communities. The National Science Foundation provided no further funding to ESI or to Curriculum Development Associates for work on the MACOS curriculum. Although the dissemination of MACOS continued, the development of the social studies curriculum had come to an end.20

It would be easy to read the story of MACOS as a classic conflict between cosmopolitans and parochials, between those willing to cast their net broadly to understand human society and those whose values are too narrow to allow for the introduction of comparative studies and open-ended questions into the curriculum. But to do so would be to simplify the complexity of the conflicts over values that MACOS wrought. The designers of MACOS wanted to transform the content and teaching of social studies. In the process, they uncovered value-laden problems that went far beyond the scope of the issues they were tackling. MACOS was accused, for instance, of being irreligious; it was also attacked for being racist. When the nation’s new social agendas heightened sensitivity to racial issues, the designers of MACOS dropped the unit on the African Bushmen from their curriculum, believing it “politically unwise to introduce materials about partially naked, ‘dark-skinned primitives’ into the classroom.” Critics of MACOS saw the curriculum as promoting “cultural relativism and environmental determinism.“ Textbooks should attempt to be neutral, they argued, or should present a balance of values, rather than one perspective only.21

But objections to MACOS were not only about its potentially sensitive material. Many parents and scholars shared the concerns of the Council on Basic Education, the Heritage Foundation, and others that use of MACOS in fifth grade occurred at the expense of U.S. history, the subject matter traditionally taught during that year. Although the interdisciplinary curriculum might be interesting, they argued, students needed to be provided first of all with a solid grounding in history, civics, and geography. MACOS, they felt, deemphasized facts and skills. A different set of values was at issue: Which subject matter was more valuable, which content deserved priority, and—even more deeply embedded—what educational purpose a course of study was to serve.

Like the new mathematics curriculum, MACOS raised problems for teachers. To use MACOS, teachers had to learn new subject matter; they had to spend considerable time preparing for each class, getting the various materials in order, determining the probable flow of student questions, and deciding the best means of guiding class discussion, The emphasis on open-ended discussion, on relativism in evaluating the behaviors under study, and on problem solving required different classroom practices. Many teachers greeted these changes enthusiastically, but many found it easier to retain the old, familiar textbooks, particularly when they were faced with the demands of a newly diverse student population. When teachers were given little time, little incentive, and little payoff for changing their teaching practice and course content, it was difficult for any curriculum reform to gain much ground.

MACOS was also unlucky. It appeared just as the era of curriculum reform was coming to a close. When further development into other social studies areas became necessary, federal support for curriculum diminished. Funding for the parallel-curriculum for teacher training never materialized. Local school systems facing tightening budgets found themselves less able to draw on federal funds for the purchase and upkeep of materials.

There is a special irony to the story of MACOS, for it fell victim to two problems it originally hoped to counter. First, to satisfy growing demands for “relevance” in curriculum, MACOS presented students with concrete experiences of animals and humans rather than traditional history and social studies courses. Yet, as social studies courses began to focus on the “immediate” concerns of civil rights and the Vietnam War, MACOS seemed both too tame and too abstract.

The second irony is that MACOS was a victim of the emerging conflict between equality and excellence. MACOS drew heavily on Jerome Bruner’s assertion that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.“22 By that, Bruner meant that the critical concepts and structures that underlie disciplines and problems could be communicated to all students. Pedagogically, MACOS was designed to cut across grade levels and to be taught in classrooms with students of diverse abilities, backgrounds, and interests. In practice, however, MACOS came to be seen as a highly academic program that depended on high levels of basic literacy skills, comprehension, and analytic abilities—from both teachers and students—and it appealed most to those already used to thinking in terms of a world beyond their immediate communities. By the early 1970s, however, public debate about learning had come to define such a curriculum as elitist—a position that MACOS innovators had initially tried to counter. With school budgets growing tight, investment in programs was hard to justify. Adding a potentially controversial program to already politicized schools made little sense. In the end, MACOS smacked of much the same kind of elitism that affected the SMSG curriculum, despite the fervent hopes of its originators that it would not.


In less than two decades, the enthusiasm for a curriculum revolution that began in the early 1950s was gone. The authors of SMSG, MACOS, and the other curriculum-reform efforts in the sciences, languages, and humanities had sought a major transformation in what was learned and how it was taught. Many teachers were exposed to new approaches to teaching; many capitalized on the reforms by incorporating into their classes those aspects they judged relevant. Traditional textbooks incorporated some of the new content and format. By severely challenging the existing curriculum, the curriculum reformers of the 1950s and early 1960s prepared the way for the later proliferation of curriculum choices. Paradoxically, they made it easier to adopt a cafeteria-style curriculum.

But neither the curriculum nor teaching was transformed in the way the reformers intended. In commenting on a 1979 National Science Foundation evaluation of science, mathematics, and social studies curricula, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics concluded that there was “reason to question the extent to which any of the proposals for innovative pedagogy have influenced predominant instructional patterns.” Most mathematics classes involved pretty much what they always had: extensive teacher-directed explanation and questioning, textbook authorities, and student seatwork on pencil and paper assignments. Overall, the NSF study found, mathematics was seen by teachers and students as “a dry, mechanical thing, to be done stoically.“23

The evidence on social studies was similar. Most teachers used textbooks in traditional ways and did not draw on the social sciences. The National Council for the Social Studies noted that, for the student, knowing was “largely a matter of having information; and the demonstration of the knowledge frequently involves being able to reproduce the language of the text in class discussions or on tests.” Students in the 1970s were taught in basically the same way as their parents: textbook assignments followed by recitation.24

The new science curriculum materials met with somewhat more success than the new math and the new social studies. At the higher grade levels particularly, the new science materials had some lasting impact. Nevertheless, with the possible exception of BSCS, the new biology program, use of the new science curricula was far below that of the traditional science texts. The high expectations for foreign-language instruction dissipated. Language labs deteriorated, and foreign languages almost entirely disappeared from the curriculum. The new English curriculum flourished briefly, but quickly lost much of its academic content.

In trying to understand why, after the protracted efforts at curriculum reform, most subjects were still being taught in traditional ways, we find that three overlapping issues deserve attention. Each cuts across the particular curriculum-reform effort: competing claims over what ought to be learned, the relationship of reform to the culture of the school, and the shifting priorities of the educational system.

Whenever reformers set out to change curricula, they define, in effect, what they think ought to be learned in school. This is seen sharply today in the call for a return to a core curriculum and the institution of high school graduation requirements. In the 1950s, with the best of intentions, reformers assumed that the best minds could agree on the best forms of knowledge and there would be an end to the matter; the community at large would go along. They underestimated the extent to which local and family values excited depths of feeling about what should be taught in schools. By the 1960s and 1970s, the onslaught of heated political controversies forced reformers to adopt more relative criteria about what should be learned. No one subject was held to be more important than another—there was no agreed-upon common core of knowledge. In this climate it was easy to make the case for almost any innovation in the curriculum. Vague notions such as “student as teacher” and “community as teacher” were common. Some reformers even urged students to see themselves as oppressed by the schools and by the demands of a formal adult curriculum. These were not easy times for leading scholars who advanced concepts of knowledge that smacked of rigor or elitism.25

Because the reformers came from the nation’s prestige universities, they tended to model their curricula after the academic content of college and graduate courses. They were enthusiastic about academic research and highly critical of school instruction. Their goal was to teach young students the structure of their discipline, to have them think like mathematicians, or social or natural scientists. They were less concerned about the realities of classroom teaching and more interested in intellectual discourse about the ideal instructional content. At best they were ambivalent toward schoolteachers. When they included teachers in designing curricula, they chose the best teachers from the best schools. They believed that most teachers were part of the problem. As Seymour Sarason suggests, “At least some of those pushing for change were of the opinion that not all of the inadequacies of the old math resided in the math as such but also reflected inadequacies of many


Yet the curriculum planners were dependent on the very same teachers to implement their programs. The teachers were often less convinced of the wisdom of using the new curricula. The further afield the curriculum dissemination went, the more difficult it was for the curriculum reformers to transmit the intellectual excitement of the programs to those who had not participated in their creation. For many teachers the approach of the new curricula often violated their own patterns of teaching. The new curricula seemed directed toward those students who were already excelling: the new instructional formats undermined the traditional means of maintaining discipline in the classroom.

Parents, school boards, and local citizens did not always agree with professional prescriptions of what was best for their children. The clash of values has been a persistent feature of American educational history. It resurfaced in the disputes over MACOS. The clash had not been unintended. The curriculum designers had expressly sought to offer pupils new insights and perspectives: scientific objectivity, the evolutionary nature of humans, and cultural relativism. But their curriculum had little room for maneuver or compromise, nor did they foresee the intensity of feeling that value differences would arouse.

Academic scholars themselves seriously disagreed over the worth of the new curricula. The new math raised questions that have persisted throughout the history of mathematics about the emphasis that should be placed on the development of students’ understanding of mathematical concepts, about the amount of attention that should be given to the applications of mathematics and to abstraction and generalization. The new social studies similarly became a part of ongoing debates within the profession about the propel definition and purposes of social studies education. It raised questions about the proper content of social studies: history, civics, or social sciences, or some combination thereof.27

Finally, the new curricula were affected by the consequences of a shift in societal values. The new mathematics and science curricula came into being because of Cold War-based concerns about the nation’s scientific and technological capabilities. They were directed toward upper-ability students, those deemed most likely to pursue careers in science- and mathematics-based fields. In today’s terms, they were propelled by a desire for excellence. But no sooner had the curricula appeared than the national agenda began to shift. As equality and the demands of the disadvantaged captured the nation’s attention in the 1960s, the structure and content of schooling were once again reexamined. Whereas investing substantial resources in the mathematics and science instruction of top-ability students seemed to make good sense when the development of technological expertise was the objective, this expenditure was seen as elitist and discriminatory when equality was the goal. In the new drive for equality, the pursuit of excellence became less fashionable. To some commentators, the results were disastrous: “Excellence in science education was attained when it was important enough to society; but mediocrity returned when concern was withdrawn.“28

This tension between excellence and equality is deeply embedded in American educational history, and evident in many of the educational debates today.29 Many of the curriculum reformers of the 1950s, like Jerome Bruner, tried to overcome the tension. They believed that all students could learn more than they were currently learning, and blamed inadequate curricula and poor teaching for the fact that this was not happening. At the same time they wanted to produce an intellectual and technological elite to maintain America’s competitive edge. They were also eager to have their experiments in curriculum development confirmed by the most capable students.

As the curriculum reforms gained national attention, their focus on the brightest students came under scrutiny. Despite the hope of many of the reformers that their curricula based on developmental psychology, interdisciplinary problem solving, and creative pedagogy would be used with all students, they had not counted on how crucial teachers were to any curriculum. Nor were they aware that programs for the most advanced students would be implemented at the expense of the disadvantaged. The excellence sought in the new curricula became, in practice, tied to inequalities. When, in the mid-1960s, the focus of educational policy became more avowedly committed to equality, the curriculum reforms that were about excellence found themselves peripheral.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 86 Number 2, 1984, p. 299-319
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 922, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 9:47:13 PM

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