I was introduced to the SMSG math curriculum at Topeka High School between 1965 and 1966. my recollection (somewhat defective for medical reasons) was that the Topeka (KS) school system rolled the curriculum out across all grade levels the same year. Our teacher went to a summer class to prepare for the new material. He was also an athletics coach and taught math as his academic job. The students had not come up through the curriculum and the teacher had no clue. Some of the brightest students in the class were confused, the rest were lost. The next summer, I tried to get my hands on the other textbooks to attempt to catch up. No joy! The curriculum was abandoned. I have read some stories on the Internet that suggest that some students who experienced more of the curriculum and its introduction and exploration of math concepts went on to enjoy and flourish in the study of math and astrophysics.

My question is the one in the title: Did any school districts actual teach the curriculum as planned and what were the results for the teachers and students?

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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly, just a few moments ago I posted an answer in MathStackexchange that makes reference to one of the SMSG books -- Reference books for learning matrices from the beginning?. I don't know enough concerning what you asked to post an answer here, but in case you haven't seen it yet, some related issues are discussed at: Was there an SMSG (New Math) “Algebra 2” text? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ This is discussed, somewhat, at math.rochester.edu/people/faculty/rarm/smsg.html. Key quote: "Just the other day I heard an aging academic say that Marxism hasn't failed, because it hasn't been tried -- not an original trope, for we have heard the same of Christianity for ages. Had SMSG really been tried? The mass of American teachers -- and children -- were not in the end exposed to, let alone taught, what the SMSG mathematicians prescribed. But to plead thus is only to evade responsibility." $\endgroup$
    – mweiss
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ What does SMSG stand for? $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Jasper: SMSG stands for School Mathematics Study Group. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ I can't speak till whether it was taught "as planned" in the Palo Alto (Calif.) Unified School District, but as one of the guinea pigs I can attest it was full on in my elementary school. $\endgroup$
    – Ross Day
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 3:47

5 Answers 5


Your question is twofold:

(1) Did any school districts actual teach the curriculum as planned and (2) what were the results for the teachers and students?

At the moment, I have an answer for (1): Yes.

For (2), the results for teachers and students exist in various forms, but I have not combed through them carefully. And so your second question is certainly tractable, though I do not know the answer.

To find out about your query, I passed it on to Henry Pollak since (quoting from the aforelinked):

Pollak was heavily involved with the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG), an attempt to improve primary and secondary American mathematics education. Invited by Edward Begle and Albert Tucker, he participated in the initial four-week writing session of the SMSG, creating new curriculum (1958-60). He later was a member of the SMSG advisory board (1961-64, 1967-72) and its chairman (1963-64).

The take-away seems to be that, yes, the curriculum was taught in some places, and assessments of its creation and implementation were carried out by ETS, the Minnesota National Laboratory, the NSF, and SMSG itself. (Note: You may be interested in consulting Phillips' The New Math: A Political History; google books begins its preview with Chapter 5.)

You can find an example of an SMSG report (funded by the NSF) from 1959 here; please note that there are many such documents (cf. the archive at U of Texas Austin here) and some are quite long. (More precisely: I have not read through them in granular detail, so I am confident that a more informative response than mine can be posted to answer your question.)

I paste below Pollak's response, since it draws from his first-hand experience, and I am sure its availability on MESE is more valuable than confining it to my inbox!

The work on SMSG started in the summer of 1958. I was a member of the team writing the first course on algebra and did not become a member of the overall advisory board for the project until about 1962. But I have both written materials and recollections relevant to your questions, both of them incomplete and full of gaps. In summary, there was an enormous amount of teaching (1) to provide formative evaluation for revisions, (2) to carry out major evaluations, by both Educational Testing Service and the Minnesota National Laboratory, and (3) to allow schools and teachers to use the materials. I have recollection that experimental teaching began immediately, and proof of careful testing for both the National Science Foundation and SMSG itself first carried out no later than 1959. The preparation by school districts for adopting the materials was highly variable, and [the emailed question] itself provides an example.

Let me note parenthetically that UICSM, the University of Illinois Committee(?) on School Mathematics, which began around 1956, so at least two years earlier, initially required a full year of training at Urbana of any teacher wishing to teach its materials.

I have summaries of both the ETS and the Minnesota evaluations published in 1961, but I do not own the full reports themselves. I have further evaluation summaries from 1963. I have summaries of state-by-state programs for in-service teachers from 1964 from 23 states. Kansas is not one of them.

People still active who may have more information and copies of evaluations from the 1960's are Jeremy Kilpatrick and Jim Wilson, both at the University of Georgia (but possibly retired).


(I am not sure how one would obtain the full reports alluded to above; it is possible that they already exist in a digitized form, or are somewhere in the Briscoe Center archives. Hopefully another MESE user can fill in more details.)


Just a short addition. Ed Begle published a valuable study through MAA/NCTM entitled "Critical Variables in Mthematics Education", which was an attempt (in part) to sort out some of the lessons of the SMSG.


I started SMSG math in 4th or 5th grade in Washington State in 1961. I liked it a lot. I still remember the yellow softcover text I was given and liked that I could write in it. I hung onto that yellow book for years, but eventually lost it. Everything seemed to make sense in a very pleasing way. I wanted to be a mathematician in Jr High, but that ambition was lost too. It seemed better math than what I saw my son being taught in the 1990’s.


I had it in my Lansing, Michigan 5th grade class in 1961. I recall that approximately 30% of us were 'selected' somehow. Loved it.


A lot of places ran it. Fairfax county was one. Results were decent. But you had a very strong, i.e. non typical demographic.

Personally I didn't hate it. But I don't buy the hype either. It's another outside in curriculum by non teachers, with government funding push. Education is prone to these, like common core. There is this attraction to dealing with the (easier) problem of what to teach and a hesitancy to deal with the (harder) problem of how to teach, how to get results.

And Dick Feynman had a good point on set theory. It's almost irrelevant in the general science and engineering courses. Much more important to solve the issues people have with algebraic manipulations, even arithmetical manipulations than to teach union and intersection.

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    $\begingroup$ "Dick Feynman had a good point on set theory. It's almost irrelevant in the general science and engineering courses." Only as long as you don't use combinatorics in your tasks and don't try to program some algorithms in the discrete settings. If you do, the confusion between the union and the intersection may cost you more than believing that $\frac 12+\frac 13=\frac 25$. But yeah, teaching the set theory in a dry distilled way can kill anybody's enthusiasm about math. Here I have to agree :-( $\endgroup$
    – fedja
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 5:39

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