kitchen table math, the sequel: A really bad idea I hadn't heard of

Monday, April 25, 2011

A really bad idea I hadn't heard of

In today's Wall Street Journal:
Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun, a Republican of Orange County, introduced a measure mandating that school textbooks of all subjects be authored by current or former New York schoolteachers. The bill memo says that such a law would help "provide equal and balanced learning opportunities for K-12 students" and cut down textbook costs by up to 80%.

No Elephant in the Room With These Laws
by Jacob Gershman
APRIL 25, 2011
A law that would actually make it illegal for New York school districts to adopt Singapore Math.

Or any textbook written by an actual mathematician.

64 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey, that sounds like a great job for all those New York teachers who can't get fired!

http://reason.com/archives/2006/10/01/how-to-fire-an-incompetent-tea

LynnG said...

I don't see how it could possibly cut the cost of textbooks -- won't Glencoe and McGraw Hill just revise some edition they already have, add another name to their laundry lists of "contributors" and "authors" and sell a special, NY compliant edition? At a higher cost?

cranberry said...

Restricting supply always lowers cost. At least in New York. (sarcasm intended.)

Wouldn't this be easily overturned by the feds, as it would involve interstate trade?

Catherine Johnson said...

Restricting supply always lowers cost. At least in New York. (sarcasm intended.)

lolllll!

Yeah, I see those prices TUMBLING!

Catherine Johnson said...

Have you all noticed that your districts are "getting away from textbooks"?

Our curriculum director told us this a few weeks ago. It had been obvious for awhile, but I hadn't heard an administrator say so out loud.

Also, we are now paying stipends to teachers for "curriculum development."

I believe that's the next step: first districts hire curriculum directors; then districts decide to write their own curriculum, and to pay staff to do so.

For a couple of years now, our curriculum directors have been saying, "Trailblazers isn't our curriculum. We write our own curriculum."

Catherine Johnson said...

The horrifying thing around here is that we're paying stipends to teachers to "develop curriculum" in ONE WEEK over the summer.

That's it.

One week.

I know a parent here who worked for a textbook publisher; she says that the textbook writing (& developing) process is huge and expensive.

My district apparently plans to replace multi-year textbook writing process with one-week 'curriculum development' efforts.

In practice, this means the curriculum is Google: teachers download stuff from the internet, and students lose it in their backpacks.

Anonymous said...

I had 4 years of high school French: 3 years of a great teacher, and the sophomore year with a plodding teacher. But, they both used the same textbook series. Guess what? we learned enough sophomore year to be right on track when we returned to the great teacher junior year.

Catherine Johnson said...

wow -- thanks for posting

How many schools are getting rid of textbooks, do we know?

I don't absolutely expect to see my district get rid of textbooks altogether, but "we're getting away from textbooks" is the stated philosophy.

It takes years to write a good textbook - no teacher has that kind of time.

LynnG said...

I hear the same thing -- we are getting away from textbooks and "Everyday Math is not our curriculum. We write our own curriculum."

We added a second curriculum director, too -- so we have one for MS and HS and one for elementary.

The supplemental curriculum developed by teachers is CMT prep (at least for math). It is pages and pages of multiple choice math questions covering all of the strands of the CMT.

We are also paying stipends over the summer for teachers to develop curriculum. This is clearly a trend, because this district is never a first mover. We are followers here. We are deep in the "land of steady habits" and proud of it. So if we are developing curriculum over the summer, I can assure you, everybody must be doing it.

Cranberry said...

I've heard it said that California and Texas drive the textbook market. Textbooks are thus written for an audience with a significant ESL component. Add in the need for illustrations, irrelevant articles, and the additions to satisfy textbook committees and political groups in 50 states, and you end up with what we have today, very large books with simple prose.

The books are so large, middle schoolers can't carry a whole day's allotment of textbooks in their backpacks comfortably. If you held the backpacks to 10% of body weight, most middle schoolers' backpacks wouldn't pass muster, and it's mostly due to the textbooks.

See Diane Ravich's book on textbook composition for more details.

CassyT said...

Catherine said: The horrifying thing around here is that we're paying stipends to teachers to "develop curriculum" in ONE WEEK over the summer.

Actually, I've been asked to spend 2 weeks in NY to work with teachers on strategies for teaching the math in the Common Core. They're not buying new curriculum or Singapore Math materials. Teachers are expected to develop the lessons on their own.

We're doing 1 day on Singapore Math, then 1 day for pre-K & K teachers, 1 day for first grade, 1 day for second grade, and so on, through 6th grade.

Cranberry said...

CassyT, that's (to use Catherine's word) horrifying.

Next theory: school districts are trying to wait until the curricula aligned to the Common Core curriculum are available. The New York Times had an article today about foundations teaming up with Pearson to produce Common Core online curricula: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/28/education/28gates.html?partner=rss&emc=rss.

CassyT said...

Cranberry:

At the NCSM conference earlier this month, Steve Rasmussen of Key Curriculum Press said something along the lines of..."C'mon people, we aren't going to write new textbooks for the Common Core unless you start buying more textbooks."

Could be a long wait for those new books.

Cranberry said...

Cassy, part of the problem seems to be the condensation of the textbook industry, and the publishers' willingness to produce terrible products. The person I heard speak must have read the article I linked below. It's fascinating in the context of this discussion:Mass-market educational publishers cannot afford to have deep convictions about what their books contain, how "hard" they are, or even if they are "printed."2 The complex phenomenon known as "dumbing down" is a rational activity on the part of value-free sellers who seek to capture a larger share of a nationwide market. Textbook buyers are mainly concerned that their textbooks be accessible to all students, including those who don't read well and those who are least academically capable.
(...)
New textbook editions across the curriculum reflect lowered sights for general education. Textbook makers are adjusting to short attention spans and nonreaders. Too many children cannot -- or do not want to -- read. Nor are they eager to digest concrete facts or memorize events, principles, and concepts. Among editors, phrases such as "text-heavy," "information-loaded," "fact-based," and "nonvisual" are negatives. A picture, they insist, tells a story and takes the place of a thousand words. The results are high cost, unconscionable bulk, and instructional confusion. Textbooks across the curriculum are being transformed into picture and activity books instead of clear, portable, simply designed, text-centered primers. Bright photographs, broken formats, and seductive colors overwhelm the text and confuse the page. Type is larger and looser, which results in many fewer words and much more white space per page. The text itself can get lost. And what text remains is dense and often unintelligible.

http://www.historytextbooks.org/publish.htm

So, however silly it seems to make teachers write their own curriculum, they might do a better job than textbook publishers. Steve Rasmussen's threat might be empty. "We won't increase supply until demand picks up" is not a convincing argument when there are other suppliers--the internet, and self-written curricula which teachers are willing to share(?).

CassyT said...

At NCSM, Steve Leinwand and Bill MacCallum both suggested that with the Common Core, mathematics textbooks should be thinner. We'll see.

I don't think it's silly for teachers to write their own curriculum. I think that it's a lot of work to do correctly. And elementary teachers would then be writing their own curriculum in math, writing, reading, history, and science.

LynnG said...

Steven Leinwand bears the lion's share of the blame for CT's bizarre math standards. He was the Math Consultant to the Dept of Ed during the adoption of those standards and was instrumental in our latest effort to write a model algebra curriculum for the State.

I simply can't trust anything he does at this point, his credibility is nonexistent.

Catherine Johnson said...

"land of steady habits"

Where does that phrase come from!?

I love it!

Catherine Johnson said...

Lynn - you should find out what "over the summer" means.

I finally looked at some of our docs & discovered that curriculum development over the summer means one week of work.

No one develops a curriculum in one week.

Catherine Johnson said...

I want disciplinary specialists to write curriculum!

That is, I want mathematicians to write math books; historians to write history books, etc.

I think it's fine - maybe good - to have K-12 teachers as coauthors, but I want my child to learn from books written by people who are specialists in the content being taught.

If you pass a law saying that all textbooks have to be written by K-12 teachers, you're passing a law saying that no child can learn from a textbook written by a college professor.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've been asked to spend 2 weeks in NY to work with teachers on strategies for teaching the math in the Common Core. They're not buying new curriculum or Singapore Math materials. Teachers are expected to develop the lessons on their own.

WOW

Well, that explains a lot.

Did any of you see the Times article on NY schools teaching the Common Core standards?

The h.s. math teacher is having his students measure their heights & see if they fit on a bell curve; the English teacher is having her students Google op eds and analyze them.

I'll find & post.

LynnG said...

One of the official mottoes of Connecticut is "The Land of Steady Habits" (also the Nutmeg State). It is an apt description of life here.

I will try to see what "over the summer" means. You raise an excellent point - it might be a week, it might be more, but the phrase is the latest vague pronouncement in a long line of vague pronouncements.

Bonnie said...

We college professors always write our own "curriculum" (well, we don't call it that, but it is the same concept). If we can do it, why can't teachers? And as for the "developing in a week" thing, we often get told a day in advance that we will be teaching a new course. There is nothing quite like developing all of the materials, lectures, and activities for a course on one day notice!

LynnG said...

I'm conflicted over teacher created curriculum. I spent the first month of this year reviewing and evaluating 5th grade social studies textbooks. I wanted something that would be structured chronologically and it needed to be content-rich, as well as take a broader view than just US History or Western European and US. I finally settled on "Our Nation" by Macmillan.

It's met my needs, but just barely. The content, while there, is quite dully presented. The actual writing is extremely boring to read. There is no attempt to use complex sentences or interesting vocabulary. It is dry.

So it is a base reference only. It is a starting point, a text we use to cover background information. To try to bring the history alive and make it interesting, I've had to scour the library, bookstores, and yes, the internet. I have found all sorts of wonderful books and dvds for particular units. It has been a lot of work, but I really enjoy finding things that support the history and make it interesting.

I can see how, if I taught 5th grade social studies for several years in a row, it would not be difficult to vastly improve the curriculum and "write" in a week over the summer. I would not want any teacher to be forced to stick with the textbook for the bulk of the curriculum.

Anonymous said...

But I've seen this "develop your own curriculum" process in action. It's especially bad in the hands of teachers who, themselves, have never studied the content at hand (i.e. sixth grade teachers making up a history curriculum when they've never taken even one real history course). It turns into, "let's make up some fun activities related somehow to the topic."

lgm said...

Mary P. Dolciani was a New Yorker. I guess she won't qualify as a 'schoolteacher' though; that term probably means teachers of preK-12 students.

Crimson Wife said...

I've heard it said that California and Texas drive the textbook market.

Both Singapore Primary Math and Saxon Math are approved by the CA Dept. of Education for use in the state's government-run schools.

Now getting districts to actually adopt those instead of the awful Every Day Mathematics is a whole 'nother ball of wax.

Cranberry said...

Singapore Math is by definition, not an American curriculum. It's great, I'd love districts to adopt it, but it's ties to another country protect it from the US publishers' current practices of dumbing down. Both Saxon Math and Singapore Math are Distinctly Different than other math curricula available. Saxon Math's founder left a distinct program, even though it's now owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The article I linked to also points out that US publishers are not using authors anymore:

Companies have shrunk their editorial and production staffs and, more significantly, their use of real authors. To reduce costs, they are moving toward a writing-for-hire production system and abandoning the royalty-based author system. Some new secondary-level history textbooks have no authors at all. Authors have been replaced by a long list of contributors, censors, and special pleaders, concerned first of all that history meets their particular goals.

LynnG said...

It's not just the public schools that use EDM when they don't have to. Around here, several of the very expensive, private K-6 schools also use EDM. There is enormous reluctance to adopt Singapore Math, even in those schools that don't take the state mandatory tests.

At least the public schools have the excuse that the state tests are written to favor the EDM philosophy. EDM and the CMT are very closely aligned.

But independent schools that don't take the CMT also voluntarily use EDM.

Catherine Johnson said...

Bonnie -

We college professors always write our own "curriculum" (well, we don't call it that, but it is the same concept). If we can do it, why can't teachers?

College professors don't write their own materials; they choose the best textbook they can find. That's one of Ed's strongest objections -- college professors don't "write their own curriculum."

College professors write a syllabus; they don't write the materials students read.

Part 2: the difference between a college professor and a K-12 teacher is that the college professor is a disciplinary specialist.

That's the entire issue in the math wars: 'math educators' (K-12 teachers) are not listening to actual mathematicians.

K-12 teachers have degrees from education schools; college professors have Ph.Ds in the discipline they teach and research.

This is bringing me back to parent choice.

As usual, I'm happy for parents who want K-12 teachers to write curriculum without consulting disciplinary specialists to send their kids to schools where K-12 teachers write curriculum.

But I am having to pay out of pocket to send my son to a high school that uses textbooks written by college professors, and I object to that in the strongest possible terms.

Catherine Johnson said...

Authors have been replaced by a long list of contributors, censors, and special pleaders, concerned first of all that history meets their particular goals.

Love it!

Contributors, censors, and special pleaders.

Where's the math?!

Catherine Johnson said...

I can see how, if I taught 5th grade social studies for several years in a row, it would not be difficult to vastly improve the curriculum and "write" in a week over the summer. I would not want any teacher to be forced to stick with the textbook for the bulk of the curriculum.

I'd like to see NY create the system CA set up in...the 1980s, I think. Bill Honig, who was superintendent of schools, decided that professional development would be done by actual college professors instead of by education schools. He created several entities -- Project Matter Insitutes -- (can't remember if that was the actual name) to do this. Each summer teachers attended week-long seminars with disciplinary specialists. (I think it was one week -- all these details are blurry now.)

Teachers loved it.

What I want - and, again, I don't 'demand' that all parents want this - .... what I want is for my child to be taught content that disciplinary specialists have either created or vetted.

I want my child to be taught math a mathematician would agree is math.

I want my child taught history a historian would agree is history.

And so on.

If professional development for teachers included teachers taking courses or seminars in the field they teach, that would be good.

Catherine Johnson said...

But I've seen this "develop your own curriculum" process in action. It's especially bad in the hands of teachers who, themselves, have never studied the content at hand (i.e. sixth grade teachers making up a history curriculum when they've never taken even one real history course). It turns into, "let's make up some fun activities related somehow to the topic."

right

Catherine Johnson said...

Speaking of curriculum directors, I've recently learned that the curriculum director who chose Math Trailblazers did so against the objections of the 6-12 math chair.

Here's what I'm wondering.

In practice, will we-write-our-own-curriculum water down content even more than it's already been watered down?

Curriculum directors, as far as I can tell, 'replace' department chairs in terms of power and influence over curriculum.

At a minimum, the curriculum director determines curriculum for grades K-6 or K-8, which means that students entering high school have been doing the things curriculum directors think are important -- not the things high school department chairs think are important.

Allison said...

Catherine, what you said about professors
"College professors don't write their own materials; they choose the best textbook they can find...College professors write a syllabus; they don't write the materials students read."

is not true in the sciences, math, or some disciplines of engineering.

I'll speak to Bonnie's point in a moment, but if what you say is true beyond history, it's a big difference between the sciences and the liberal arts.

Largely, professors new to a course may select a text, but professors who have taught before have their own lecture notes. Most profs borrow heavily from another syllabus from profs in the dept and start with their texts or lecture notes. Usually, though, they develop their own notes over a few years and then write their own book from those notes after teaching the course for several years.

In case where textbooks are used, such as in many physics classes, some comp sci classes, etc. the list of required books is 4-6 long, with another half a dozen suggested, too. That's because the teacher isn't following any such book closely. They are doing their own thing, and the books are used as references. Math classes are similar, though there are some books considered canonical enough to be standard. Even here, though, they are references more than being followed closely.

Allison said...

So to Bonnie's point " If we can do it, why can't teachers?"

and your point "the difference between a college professor and a K-12 teacher is that the college professor is a disciplinary specialist" there are problems with both.

Bonnie, the answer to your problem "why can't teachers" is answered because practically all teachers in elementary school do not have much of any math knowledge. They know what their students need to know. They don't understand precision or definition,or abstraction. They don't know what concepts are important to success at algebra 1, let alone alg 2 or above. They don't know what mastery looks like. They don't know how math is used in college or careers. They don't understand why the standard algorithms are important, and they can't explain why the math rules they teach are true.

But I disagree with Catherine here, too. The above is not to say that disciplinary specialists know what's needed at K-8. I'm speaking about math, here, again, and don't have enough knowledge to address other subjects out of math and science, but mathematicians as a class have spent no time thinking about K-12 math or what it's for either. They do understand precision, abstraction, and definition, and they do know how math will be used in a mature mathematician, but they have spent no time thinking about what a novie needs to know, or how to create it step by step. Mathematicians with phds wrote Everyday Math, and they don't think it's bad, because they can't distinguish what they think is interesting, useful, and important for a child to know *given their phd-mature knowledge base* from what a novice child would find interesting, useful, and important.

Writing curriculum well is extremely difficult.

SteveH said...

"Everyday Math is not our curriculum. We write our own curriculum."


I heard a form of this years ago at one of the K-8 private schools we looked at. When we asked them what math curriculum they used, they were prepared. They said that they used Everyday Math, but they supplement heavily.

Right.

They know. Another school talked about balance. These are simply high level discussion enders.

SteveH said...

So, the question is whether you can believe the words that come out of their mouths. Are they designed to make you go away? You can't get into the details while still being nice. I remember being stunned that the private school my son went to didn't have a curriculum document. No class syllabi. I couldn't see a list of books, units, or anything. If I had a question, they were more than happy to let me talk to the teacher. Where does the conversation go from there? This was the private school where many bright students got to fifth grade without mastering the times table, a clear part of everyone's "balance" discussion. This is not a question of pedagogy. It is a question of competence.

Catherine Johnson said...

Mathematicians with phds wrote Everyday MathMathematicians with phds wrote Everyday Math

Is that the case?

I've been told pretty much the opposite by a mathematician....

Catherine Johnson said...

Who was the high school teacher who worked on the original "New Math" materials?

I remember people saying that some of those books were fantastic because they were written by mathematicians working with a high school teacher.

I'm not opposed to K-12 teachers being authors of textbooks, BUT I either want a real mathematician also to be an author, or I want the book to be peer reviewed by mathematicians.

And then field tested to boot!

That's the other issue with "We write our own curriculum."

Practically speaking, what "We write our own curriculum" means is that students are constantly being exposed to a brand-new, untested set of materials.

That probably wouldn't bother me in a school with a culture of measurement and continuous improvement and the like, but in my district, where all programs are assumed to be good by virtue of the fact that they are our programs, it's a problem.

ChemProf said...

I'd agree and disagree with Allison and Bonnie. Yes, faculty in the sciences do develop curriculum in that they set the topic order and that they often ignore the textbook's order (I think the order in most Gen Chem books is awful, as an example).

However, for a lot of classes, there is a national curriculum or at least a consensus in the field. Someone who taught a class called general chemistry who decided to skip stoichiometry or gas laws would be doing his/her students a serious disservice, as would someone who decided to skip kinematics in physics. That may not be as true in upper division classes, though, where there is often less agreement about exactly what needs to be taught.

Catherine Johnson said...

sorry - I left this comment in the wrong thread (thanks Anonymous)

they develop their own notes over a few years and then write their own book from those notes after teaching the course for several years.

That's a big difference.

A history professor writes lectures, but he doesn't write a textbook unless he actually **does** write a textbook for a publishing company, in which case he might assign his or her own textbook to the class.

That said, I've misspoken: college professors write 'curriculum' in the sense of creating the structure of the class and choosing what topics will be taught --- ALTHOUGH to a large and important degree the professor doesn't 'choose' the topics; the topics have been chosen by the field.

One other thing: college textbooks are peer-reviewed. From the initial proposal all the way through to the final manuscript, the text is read and reviewed by specialists in the field.

Allison said...

Chemprof,

This gets back to the problem of standards vs curricula.

YES, in college science, eng, and math courses, there is, at least for the freshman level courses, consensus on what should be covered.

This consensus is over THE STANDARDS. The standards are not curriculum. The standards are the set of requirements of what should be taught. But standards don't implement requirements. Curricula does that, and there is much less consensus on the design of a course, or the "how a course" is taught.

Standards are requirements. Requirements express individual elements that a design of a product or system must satisfy. Building codes are requirements: they specify that a house must withstand 75 mph straight line winds without falling down; that the electrical system contains ground wires; that every room of the house contains a smoke detector. They don't dictate how you go about building the house though. They don't dictate if it's wood or brick, nor if it's 1000 sq ft or 3000, nor 1 bathroom or 3. They don't dictate the features of the house at all.

Likewise, consider the requirements of a cell phone: they must speak various protocols like 3G, must all talk to cell towers and tell them the Sim card ID in that exchange; must all broadcast emergency location information. None of that dictates whether or not you have an iphone or an android or a cheap disposable. A maker might have customer driven reqs, like "be less than 8 ounces, be smaller than 3/4 inch in depth", but again, that doesn't tell you about the feature set or how well it's designed.

The same is true in courses and texts. Standards do not implement themselves. Curricula implements the standards. But the notion of HOW those requirements are met is open to the prof in most cases, and to the department, but no one bigger than that is telling someone what to say in their course. The standards of academic freedom at most schools would never consider intervening to tell a prof what they can't teach. They fulfill the standards because profs believe in them, and are steeped in their discipline's ideas of standards. Over time, those change, but academics are pretty clear on this separation of standards vs curricula.

So, yes, a freshman physics course needs to teach kinematics; a chem course stoichiometry. These ideas are the standards for courses. But it leaves open both the design of the course--how much lecture/recitation/lab/homework/onlineness and the implementation--how do you actually teach that material, how do you organize it, what comes first, etc., what problems are given as examples and what are done by student in problem sets, etc.

Professors in the sciences design their own curricula based on the acceptable standards in their field and in their department.

Now, I am also not sure what Catherine was getting at by "college textbooks are peer reviewed" . I mean, the American Mathematical Society will publish any book that a member in good standing submits, basically, and the only person whose responsible for the content is the author. Sure, they may insist on some actual editing but these books are not peer reviewed other than in the sense that colleagues are asked to provide input informally, and the nature of colleagues is that they respond reciprocally.

K-12 textbooks are peer reviewed all the time. the problem is who is considered a peer.

kcab said...

ALTHOUGH to a large and important degree the professor doesn't 'choose' the topics; the topics have been chosen by the field.
This really depends on the class. At least in engineering, there are areas where this isn't really true. This could be because there are too many topics to cover all, or the field is evolving, thus also the class, or because it covers something for which no standard exists.

Perhaps the experience is different at an institution that is not focused on research though.

Catherine Johnson said...

Now, I am also not sure what Catherine was getting at by "college textbooks are peer reviewed".

In the field of history, publishers solicit textbooks from historians. (I don't know whether historians ever propose textbooks.)

If the historian is interested in writing a textbook, he or she (or the team of historians) writes a proposal, which is then sent out to other historians for vetting. It's peer review.

If the peer historians think the proposal is poor, that's the end of the proposal.

If the peers are split, the historian answers the objections made by the critics.

It's close to or the same as the peer review process for refereed journals.

College-level history textbooks are peer reviewed.

Curriculum written by K-12 teachers inside one school district isn't peer reviewed.

Catherine Johnson said...

As the textbook is written, chapters go out to peer reviewers again, I think. (Not up to date on that process, but I will be.)

Catherine Johnson said...

I mean, the American Mathematical Society will publish any book that a member in good standing submits, basically, and the only person whose responsible for the content is the author.

Completely different in the humanities!

Academic publishers do major, heavy-duty peer review.

It can be brutal.

Allison said...

I wonder why this is so different.

My immediate guess would be that by and large, the phd programs in the math, sciences, and some eng disciplines are just so good at vetting their students and post docs, and the glut of phds and postdocs means only the cream of the cream ever need to be considered for a position that no one gets to be a professor without serious content knowledge and agreement with a department's ideas of what needs to be taught.

Now, that doesn't mean profs don't teach material wrong or badly--there are scores of stories about how special relativity is routinely taught wrong to students, wrong from beginning to end. And physics depts as a whole misunderstand probability and make bad inferences about quantum mechanics as a result, but these differences seem fundamentally different than a place where publishers are worried about what content a humanities prof is writing.

Bonnie said...

OK, I am not in the humanities myself - I am in computer science - but I do have friends who teach in the humanities. I don't see them using textbooks in the way you are assuming - as this one canonical driver of curriculum. In fact, much the opposite - their courses seem to be mostly riffs on various topics with a long list of supporting readings, usually primary sources.

When I go into my college bookstore, I don't see a whole lot of those huge heavy textbooks except in certain professional fields - health services, pharmacy, accounting - fields that are very standardized due to accreditation requirements. The intro science courses have big textbooks, as do the intro to computer science courses. Honestly, though, the big problem in those courses is that very few students will actually buy the textbook, so even there, we have to teach assuming that the students are not reading the book.

Catherine Johnson said...

I wonder why this is so different.

I know!

I was amazed to read that the AMS publishes anything mathematicians want to publish.

Is there a tradition of peer review in mathematics?

Catherine Johnson said...

My immediate guess would be that by and large, the phd programs in the math, sciences, and some eng disciplines are just so good at vetting their students and post docs, and the glut of phds

That's not it.

In history (I assume in all of the humanities) everyone's work goes through peer review, including the best people in the profession.

Allison said...

I didn't say there's no peer review in mathematics. I said that the textbook publishing houses aren't the arbiters of their peer review.

The tradition of peer review in math is quite intact. But it's a whole lot more ---what's the word--informal? collegial? Organic? Preprints have been around forever, and electronic preprints that are publicly available for decades.

Everyone knows who the experts are in a subfield. Seldom do people change subfields. If you're writing something, you're in that community, and you submit your research proof or manuscript to them, and you put your preprint on the web. The whole community knows what proof you've said you've done in a day and a half. It might take weeks, months or years to go through the paper versions or wait for a journal to publish, though, so that's not the main channel for preliminary rounds of peer review. Talks are. Researchers give talks, and the back-n-forth at the talk is peer review. They give them at conferences, colloquia and symposia. People revise proofs all of the time with input from their colleagues--sometimes changing errors, sometimes making them simpler.

But the real work of this is done as research or inside a course, and the course lectures and lecture notes are peer reviewed in same organic way--if you've got a proof wrong, a student will point it out to you sooner or later. By the time you take lecture notes to book form, they are almost word for word the same as what gets published.

The tradition of monographs or lecture notes being published "as is" is old, and they are barely checked for typos let alone reviewed in the manner I read you to be suggested.

Allison said...

Theory CS is a bit different in that it's even smaller, and it sometimes overlaps with other disciplines, but the main issue there is that there are basically two major conferences that you get your work published in, that's it. There are a couple of minor ones, too but really, if you've got a result, you're presenting it at those conferences. And the turnaround time on the conference proceedings getting published in long form is extremely long. It's typical to submit an abstract for a talk to the conference before you've really finished the details of the proof, in fact, and sometimes people have to withdraw their talks because the proof doesn't work out. By the time you attend the conference, your result has been fleshed out, and you've probably shared it with people already. Then the talk is where you share it more, and get even more peer review. A journal publication gets a lot of review, but the time lag is in the years, so it's nearly irrelevant by then.

I've never heard of anyone soliciting textbooks in theory CS. It's possible that happens, but I've never heard of it. I had half a dozen or more profs where they wrote the textbook we used, and in most of those cases, I had the prof during the lecture note phase before the book was brought to publication. Usually I ended up buying the book because I like books, and they are bound and have indexes, etc. But in all cases, that was really very much the same content--same order, same pictures, same proofs. That material was developed through teaching the course for several years, and that's where the bulk of the peer review took place. It may be that the editors submit those books to other people in the field, but that's much more likely to be done for suggestions, not for yay-nay on content.

Catherine Johnson said...

The tradition of peer review in math is quite intact. But it's a whole lot more ---what's the word--informal? collegial? Organic?

Very interesting -- !

Crimson Wife said...

I do have friends who teach in the humanities. I don't see them using textbooks in the way you are assuming - as this one canonical driver of curriculum. In fact, much the opposite - their courses seem to be mostly riffs on various topics with a long list of supporting readings, usually primary sources.

My DH double-majored in Electrical Engineering and History. In his STEM classes, there was typically a textbook.

In his history classes, he typically had a reader customized by the professor with a bunch of journal articles and book excerpts, plus an assortment of non-fiction books. Looking on the shelf where he keeps some of those assigned books, I see works by Stephen Ambrose, Robert Kaplan, David McCullough, etc.

Bonnie said...

Peer review in computer science is very weird, because unlike other fields, we mainly publish in conferences rather than journals. It is a huge issue at tenure time because tenure committees assume that conference publications are meaningless - and they are in most fields - but not in computer science. Most of our conferences have acceptance rates of around 25%, and the top conferences are below 10%. That is where the peer review is happening in our field.

But that is research peer review, and I thought we were talking about textbooks. In CS, there are textbooks for certain "standard" courses - intro to programming, databases, operating systems, theory of computation, and a few others. The only real churn that I see is in the intro to programming area, because every time a new programming language hits the scene, you get 10 new books doing CS 1 and 2 in that langauge. In databases and operating systems, the same 3 or 4 authors have dominated for 20 years, issuing edition after edition of their book. So in reality, professors adopt the textbook, which isn't purchased or read by most of the class anyway, and then add lots of their own material. For courses that have no reasonable textbook - for example, everyone is adding courses on Android programming right now - we simply have the students buy a book aimed at professional developers, or cobble together notes on our own.

Catherine Johnson said...

It is a huge issue at tenure time because tenure committees assume that conference publications are meaningless

WOW

Interesting

Anonymous said...

" ... tenure committees assume that conference publications are meaningless - and they are in most fields - but not in computer science."

I suspect that it depends on the conference. I've been to a few conferences ... and was not impressed. Maybe I go to the wrong conferences (the ones I go to tend to be more applied/practical than theoretical). But I work (and have worked in the past) with some theoretician-types and the one I interact with are not very impressed with the cut-point for CS publications.

I've also spent a fair chunk of the past two years interacting with CS research groups. The kids are bright, but for the most part what they are doing isn't research. It certainly isn't theoretical or fundamental research.

I'd like to think that there are some fairly rigorous journals and conferences, but for the average journal and/or conference (heck, and PhD) doesn't seem very rigorous.

This makes me grumpy ...

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

It is probably worth mentioning that most of my interaction with the CS community has been in the areas of (a) GPGPU/parallel programming, (b) Genetic Programming, and (c) compilers.

-Mark Roulo

Allison said...

Mark, theory CS has 2 main conferences: STOC and FOCS. There are a couple either minor conferences that are respected, but basically it is the above two or nothing. They are very broad conferences, and getting accepted there is really a a req for staying in research in the field.


Bonnie, not all textbooks in cs are for ugrads. Grad level texts are published much more often and include results that were recently from research.

Bonnie said...

I didn't say the conferences contain only the most stellar work. I said that they are very competitive and that generally CS researchers like to publish in them because they like their work to get out quickly. In fact, most of these conferences are total crapshoots. That gets back to the whole topic of peer review, which I personally find to be very shaky. There are numerous problems with peer review in computer science, starting with the fact that it is very difficult to ensure blind reviews in many fields because we all know what everyone else is up to. It is very common to get wildly divergent reviews on the same paper. I submitted one recently that had generally good reviews, with one review being totally stellar, and another reviewer who clearly hated my paper and essentially rated it as "crap" in every category. I wonder if he was just very cranky that day, or if there was some other reason that he just hated my paper. Anyway, the paper didn't get in, and it might have without that one cranky reviewer. Stuff like that doesn't give me much faith in the process.

Bonnie said...

A lot of grad "textbooks" though, are really just compendiums of research, with each chapter being authored by someone different.

Michael Weiss said...

I mean, the American Mathematical Society will publish any book that a member in good standing submits, basically, and the only person whose responsible for the content is the author.

I don't think this is at all true. A friend (in fact, my next-door neighbor) has served on editorial boards for both the MAA and the AMS, and he tells me that the acceptance rate for submitted books is well below 20%. And that includes invited manuscripts; for unsolicited submissions, it is quite lower. Allison, where do you get this information?

Catherine Johnson said...

I submitted one recently that had generally good reviews, with one review being totally stellar, and another reviewer who clearly hated my paper and essentially rated it as "crap" in every category.

Right - and that's where peer review is fantastically conservative and deadly to innovation.

Allison said...

Michael,

Apparently I'm wrong, given your source. My info just came from my experience working with profs who published books using AMS.

In the 90s, I worked a couple different times as "proofreader", which is to say that I was a ugrad who took a prof's Mac Word and handwritten lecture notes and put them in Latex for his book publication. The book in published form was basically the same as the lecture note form, and the way I was given work by the prof, there was absolutely no back-n-forth between AMS and him in content. There was a deadline for publication, that's it. I did the same thing later for a different prof, but it was more proofreading--I was just editing the book for math typos. Again, given the task I was given, if someone had actually wanted a change made, I would have been the person to actually do it.

Later, in grad school, I discussed this some with various profs. The consensus I understood from them was that they no longer used ugrads or grads for those tasks because they all already wrote in latex, and that they hired their own editor for books because AMS didn't. Not exactly "hands on". Never heard a single story of anyone doing what Catherine suggested with content vetting, and given that the published versions were always almost word for word like the lecture notes, it's not clear to me how they could have been.

I guess just like Pauline Kael, I never knew of a prof whose book wasn't published through them, and assumed everyone's experience was that.

But are you suggesting that the book proposal stage is the only stage of vetting of a book? or are the editorial boards at AMS vetting beyond that? if so, why are the books always exactly like the lecture notes?

And those 20%--are they simply established mathematicians no one is going to deny?