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May 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 8

Where's the Beef? Looking for Exemplary Materials

A research project at the University of Arizona studied and ranked middle school curricular materials, searching for the most creative, relevant, and rigorous materials available.

Teaching is hard enough to do well, let alone having to design what you teach. While good teachers can improvise some curricular activities that are consistent with idealized practice, expecting teachers to develop entire curriculums is as unrealistic as expecting actors to develop their own scripts or doctors their own medical procedures.
Providing good curricular materials is critical, especially in middle schools, which are supposed to provide child-centered problem-solving approaches to learning. Teachers have a right to expect to be provided with outstanding materials. But do such materials exist? Can a school that wants to live up to the philosophic ideal of a middle school actually find appropriate, exemplary curricular materials for doing so?
For the past three-and-one-half years, my staff at the University of Arizona and four panels of experts have been reviewing middle school curricular materials in a variety of content areas to identify those that could be labelled exemplary. This review grew out of a need to provide an ongoing learning path for graduates of our HOTS program. The HOTS program is a general thinking skills program that prepares educationally disadvantaged students for middle school (Pogrow 1988, 1990b). Once it became clear that HOTS was succeeding (for example, 10–15 percent of the Chapter 1 students in the program are making honor roll), my concerns shifted to trying to ensure that these students, and all others, would have access to at least one outstanding academic course in their middle school schedule in order to continue their intellectual development.
When I began explaining to teachers and principals the need to provide exemplary academic courses to middle schools with significant percentages of educationally disadvantaged students, the response always was: “What is outstanding academic coursework? Could you give us some examples?” I was shocked. I had assumed that if I could deliver students who were ready for rigorous academic work, the system could deliver it, particularly at the middle school level, the focus of curricular reform for several decades.
I consistently found, however, that most middle school curriculum specialists I encountered had no idea what was meant by an outstanding content curriculum or how to actually establish one. Could it be possible that everyone was so wrapped up in the rhetoric of middle school curricular reform that no one had gone the next step to identify materials that exemplified the rhetoric?
To identify outstanding middle school curricular materials, the non-profit Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which sponsors middle school reform research, agreed to fund a study. The in-house curricular expertise of the HOTS project staff was combined with panels of experts assembled to judge contenders for exemplary curriculums in the content areas of mathematics, science, social studies, and language arts. The panels consisted of three experts in each content area. At least one member of each panel had established an exemplary program in a school or district. The other members were leading academicians who were curriculum specialists in their content areas.

Evaluation Procedures

To be considered exemplary, middle school curricular materials generally had to: (1) be highly creative and relate content to issues that were of paramount concern to students at the middle grades; (2) support a reflective Socratic approach to instruction; (3) develop thinking skills; and (4) present the content in a rigorous fashion. These features had to be the foundation of the materials, not simply tacked on.
There were some additional requirements for particular content areas established by the expert panels. For example, the science panel was concerned that materials: (1) tap the students' natural curiosity; (2) provide opportunities for local involvement, engaging students in issues that have relevance for the common good; and (3) explore at least some issues in depth and allow students to test their ideas. The social studies panel wanted the materials to: (1) link different disciplines in social studies; (2) develop knowledge around recurring social themes and from a variety of cultural perspectives; and (3) promote democratic values and involve students in active participation in civic affairs.
A three-step process was used to conduct the reviews. First, HOTS staff asked between 40 to 70 experts in each content area to nominate curricular materials that they considered exemplary. Great care was taken to solicit the entire range of views within a field so that no one perspective dominated. Comprehensive materials, those designed to provide at least a year's worth of activities, were considered separately from supplementary materials. On average, we received 30 nominations for each content area.
Second, the panels of three experts judged which of the nominated curricular materials were exemplary according to the established criteria. The third step determined whether the curricular materials that seemed promising on paper to the panels were actually exemplary in the real world. HOTS staff reviewed literature to determine whether any studies of the effectiveness of a recommended material had been done. They also surveyed randomly selected teachers by phone who were using the recommended materials in the classroom. Four to 10 teachers were contacted for each curricular material.
Because the best curriculums should inspire all or most students to learn, the teacher survey focused on teachers using the materials in urban schools with high percentages of educationally disadvantaged students. If two or more teachers reported that a recommended curriculum was not effective, we did not list it as exemplary. Some recommended curriculums that did not have data to indicate their effectiveness were rated as “provisionally exemplary.”

Results of the Study

The study has revealed a very bleak materials landscape. Following is a condensed version of our findings.
Comprehensive materials. Among comprehensive curricular materials, we found only one exemplary mathematics curriculum; it was 18 years old. We rated only one science curriculum exemplary; it was Canadian. (A U.S. version has recently been developed.) We found no comprehensive social studies or language arts curricular materials that met our criteria. We judged available comprehensive materials in social studies or language arts to be variations on a theme of mediocrity, even though large amounts of funds had been spent for development.
The comprehensive mathematics curriculum judged exemplary is the Real Math textbook series by Open Court. Creative and engaging, it includes integrated games built around inexpensive materials. The series introduces sophisticated concepts in a simple way in the early grades and then expands upon them in later years in a consistent fashion. It presents word problems as interesting stories that involve numbers. However, because the concepts build over the course of the curriculum, Real Math may be a jolt to students who first start to use it in middle school. Schools wishing to use this curriculum should plan to phase it into the upper elementary grades first.
We rated The University of Chicago Mathematics Project (UCSMP) Math, published by Scott, Foresman & Company, as the best of the rest.
However, this series is not nearly as creative as Real Math. In addition, the language level tends to be too difficult for students who are below grade level in reading. It also assumes a high level of prior mathematics knowledge that many middle school students do not have.
The only science curriculum judged exemplary by our panel was SciencePlus, a Canadian curriculum. An American version became available in August 1992, distributed by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. The American version employs the same approach as the Canadian, but uses American examples.
Our panel also considered FAST—The Local Environment, produced by Frank Mattas of Roseville, California, to be very good, but we thought it came up short in the areas of tying concepts to students' lives and interests.
Supplementary materials. While hardly any exemplary comprehensive curricular materials exist, we did find some excellent supplementary materials. These are summarized in Figure 1, along with our list of provisionally recommended supplementary materials.

Figure 1. Recommended Exemplary Materials


Comprehensive Materials


  • Real Math, Open Court

  • UCSMP Math, UCSMP; Scott, Foresman & Co.


  • SciencePlus, Holt, Rinehart & Winston

  • FAST—The Local Environment, Frank Mattas, EMC, Roseville, CA

Supplemental Materials


  • Algebridge, Janson Publications

  • Family Math, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley

  • Videodisc Approach to Effective Instruction in Mathematics, Center for Information Technology, Utah State University


  • CEPUP: Chemical Education for Public Understanding Program, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

  • The JASON Curriculum Project, National Science Teachers Association

  • Kids Network, National Geographic Society

  • Life Lab Science: The Growing Classroom, Lab Science Program, Santa Cruz, CA

  • ScienceVision, Houghton Mifflin Co.

  • Sourcebook of Biotechnology Activities, National Association of Biology Teachers

Social Studies

  • Close Up: Current Issues, Close-Up Foundation

  • Dig II, Interact

  • Global Geography, Agency for Instructional Technology

  • Life Unworthy of Life, Center for the Study of the Child, Farmington Hills, MI

  • Public Information Series: American Revolution; Immigration, Social Science Education Consortium

  • Reasoning With Democratic Values: Ethical Problems in United States History, Social Studies School Service

  • Where in the World/U.S.A. is Carmen Sandiego?, Broderbund

Provisionally Recommended Supplemental Materials. ((Confirming research or teacher recommendations unavailable.)

Social Studies

  • Civic Achievement Award Program (CAAP), Close-Up Foundation

  • Decisions for Today and Tomorrow: Science, Technology and Society, Sopris West

  • From Newsroom to Courtroom, Constitutional Rights FoundationSlavery in the 19th Century, Port Royal Experiment, Plessy vs. Ferguson, The Chinese Revolution, Women in the American Revolution, National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles

  • Public Information Series: The Civil War; The Railroad Era; The Progressive Era; The Rise of Organized Labor; The New Deal; Religious Freedom, Social Science Education Consortium

  • Japan Meets the West, Religion in Japan, Two Visions of the Conquest, Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), Stanford University

  • Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?, Broderbund

  • World and United States GeoGraph, MECC

Language Arts

  • Junior Great Books (New edition), The Great Books Foundation

  • Literacy Plus, Zaner-Bloser


The only potentially exemplary language arts curriculum we found is an update to Junior Great Books, just being released by The Great Books Foundation. The new Junior Great Books can be used as the basis of an overall language arts curriculum. Teachers were enthusiastic about the old version, but no evaluation data on its effectiveness existed. Our panel found Literacy Plus, published by Zaner-Bloser, to be a valuable tool for developing teacher knowledge about language arts instruction.
Thus, a few examples of outstanding curricular materials for several subject areas exist, but not enough. Possible reasons for the lack of materials may include teacher or principal resistance to new materials, caused by a lack of confidence in student or teacher ability to use the material; disagreement among academicians about what constitutes good and bad curricular materials; and little interest by the academic community in developing and researching state-of-the-art materials. Because the academic community has grossly underestimated the importance of high-quality materials in making schools better, there is no pressure to develop better forms of curricular materials, to help schools identify and implement exemplary curricular materials, or to conduct research on the effects of different forms of curriculum.

Using Exemplary Materials Effectively

To have an impact on student learning and convert exemplary curricular materials into an effective curriculum, the materials must be taught by excellent teachers who have received appropriate training in how to use the material and how to conduct Socratic discussions with students. In many ways, Socratic training is most important. Without it, even outstanding materials can be reduced to rote forms of teaching and learning.
The best types of Socratic training are behavioral, not intellectual. Teachers do not need to learn definitions of Socratic teaching as much as they need to develop appropriate instincts of listening to what students say and probing for understanding. Experience with the HOTS program has found that few of even the best teachers have well-developed Socratic instincts. Good teachers, however, can develop these instincts.
Another problem prevents curricular materials designed to promote thinking about the content area from being effective; often students, particularly educationally disadvantaged students, simply do not respond to Socratic approaches. Twelve years of HOTS program research has revealed that these students are generally very bright and can benefit from Socratic forms of instruction once they have enough experience with them. It usually takes up to two years before educationally disadvantaged students internalize the sense of understanding needed for Socratic forms of interaction or to engage in symbolic reasoning (Pogrow 1990a, 1992a, 1992b). In addition, developing this sense of understanding appears to require general thinking activities using experiences divorced from the formal content of school before the students can engage in thinking-in-content.
The turnaround that is possible once students grasp Socratic interaction is exemplified by remarks made by a science teacher in an inner-city school with large numbers of low-socioeconomic-status students. Reacting to the idea of incorporating the SciencePlus curriculum and Socratic forms of teaching, he said: “This sounds good in theory but it will never work with our students. Whenever I try to have a conversation in my class, the students stare at me. The only ones who respond are the HOTS students, and I do not have enough HOTS students to make this work.”
The teacher did not realize that the HOTS students were among the academically lowest students in the school but thought instead that they were the most gifted. This suggests that schools that want educationally disadvantaged students to be successful in exemplary courses must first track them into appropriate general thinking activities for a year or two, either at the elementary or beginning middle school grades.
The substantive implementation of exemplary curricular materials is not an easy process and involves more than a simple adoption decision. It is probably folly to try and implement exemplary materials across all content areas in the typical middle school. Doing an effective job of implementing exemplary curriculums requires careful leadership. It requires identifying the curricular areas that have the strongest teachers and starting there. Providing outstanding curriculums in one or two areas is more important than making slight improvements across the board. Most of us remember only one or two teachers from the middle school years who had a major impact on us. Providing all students with one or two outstanding learning experiences each year would go a long way toward improving American education.

Must Exemplary Materials be Multidisciplinary?

When we spoke with teachers about exemplary materials, we often encountered the assumption that materials had to be multidisciplinary to be considered exemplary. Even though the materials we have recommended are discipline specific, they are appropriate for those schools interested in establishing multidisciplinary curriculums and more connected forms of learning. They lend themselves to making connections among disciplines through interweaving concepts, relating content to issues of paramount concern to students at the middle grades, and discussing ideas in such a creative way that connecting ideas from other disciplines is easy.
For example, Dig II, by Interact, is a supplementary social studies curriculum for grades 5–8 that interweaves concepts from geography, history, and behavioral science. SciencePlus weaves ideas across three different sciences. A well-taught exemplary discipline curriculum will provide the many connections needed for students to develop cognitively and see the overall structure of ideas.
As things now stand, we suggest that a middle school that wants to improve its overall curriculum start with the types of disciplinary materials recommended in this study and provide good teaching around such materials. An outstanding content curriculum supplies teachers with the best of both worlds—extensive connections among ideas within the discipline and broad-based activities that can be easily connected to other disciplines. Teachers can then add multidisciplinary touches to this solid curricular base over time.
Developing an effective middle school requires more than philosophy, rhetoric, and stated commitment. It requires outstanding curricular materials that support and promote a Socratic approach to teaching and learning, terrific teachers who are dedicated to teaching in that fashion and who have the ability to do so, and students who know how to discuss ideas.
Unfortunately, there appears to be a gross mismatch between philosophy and production. While we want the right things for kids, we seem to be unwilling (unable?) to produce the substantive forms of curriculums, teacher training, and organizational processes needed. A modest start would be to support outstanding curricular materials and figure out how to make them work—for all students—even if for one period a day. After all the public concern and money spent, it's still hard to find a terrific curriculum when you need it.

What's Hot? The New HOTS-Math

What would a middle school mathematics curriculum look like if it were designed from the ground up to combine the use of computers, Socratic dialogue, the latest theories of cognition, and drama? HOTS-Math is a two-year pre-algebra curriculum that started with a clean sheet of paper and the goal of presenting middle school mathematics in a totally different fashion.
The primary design consideration is to consistently intrigue and involve students even as they learn traditional mathematics. Instead of using “mathematics” software, the program uses simulations that present a variety of situations of interest to students, but which themselves are not mathematical. The curriculum organizes the activities so that mathematics indirectly becomes important to the success of the simulations. (See example below.)

Where's the Beef? Looking for Exemplary Materials - table


Math Topic

Interpreting classical art to help the Ninja Turtles defeat YIguRatio
Operating Three Smile Island nuclear reactor and trying to keep the positrons and negatrons in balanceAdding signed numbers
Determining whether jewels are valuable or notArea of geometric figures
Communicating with a somewhat artificially intelligent space creature stuck inside the computer that understands English—somewhatWord problems
Driving a Corvette through San FranciscoMotion problems
Using mathematics to accomplish such nonmathematical goals is a more honest portrayal of how scientists and other workers normally use mathematics.
HOTS-Math will also be a research tool to answer questions such as: Is it possible to design a primarily process approach to learning that increases traditional content knowledge? and What is an optimal mix for combining process learning experiences with judicious use of drill to automate recall?
HOTS-Math is currently being piloted for the Macintosh LC and will be available September 1993. An IBM-compatible version may be available in September 1994.
The HOTS project is also researching the advantages of placing educationally disadvantaged students in urban middle schools into the HOTS program and then moving them into at least one exemplary academic course. Their progress will be compared to that of mainstream students.
Information about HOTS' initiatives can be obtained by writing Stanley Pogrow, The University of Arizona, College of Education, Tucson, AZ 85721.

Pogrow, S. (April 1988). “Teaching Thinking to At-Risk Elementary Students.” Educational Leadership 45: 79–85.

Pogrow, S. (January 1990a). “Challenging At-Risk Students: Findings from the HOTS Program.” Phi Delta Kappan 71: 389–397.

Pogrow, S. (February 1990b). “A Socratic Approach to Using Computers with At-Risk Students.” Educational Leadership 47: 61–66.

Pogrow, S. (April 1992a). “What to Do About Chapter 1: An Alternative View from the Street.” Phi Delta Kappan 73: 624–630.

Pogrow, S. (1992b). “Converting At-Risk Students into Reflective Learners.” In Mind Matters: Vol. 2, edited by A. Costa, J. Bellanca, and R. Fogarty. Palatine, Ill.: Skylight Publishing.

End Notes

1 Complete evaluation reports including all nominated and recommended materials for mathematics, science, social studies, and language arts are available free to NMSA members by writing to: NMSA, 4807 Evanswood Drive, Columbus, OH 43229, Attn: Casandra Briley. Copies can also be obtained by writing Stanley Pogrow.

Stanley Pogrow has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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