Former University President Will Lead U.S. Math Panel
Here's the key sentence: The panel is modeled on the National Reading Panel. Get out your flashcards, kids.
By Diana Jean Schemo
WASHINGTON, May 14 — The Bush administration has named a former president of the University of Texas at Austin to lead a national panel to weigh in on the math wars playing out across the country. The politically fraught battle pits a more free-form approach to teaching math against the traditional method that emphasizes rules and formulas to solve number problems.
The former president, Larry R. Faulkner, who led the university from 1998 until early this year, will be chairman of the National Math Panel, which President Bush created by executive order in mid-April.
The panel is modeled on the National Reading Panel, which has been highly influential in promoting phonics and a back-to-basics approach to reading in classrooms around the nation. Though that panel has been criticized by English teachers and other educators, its report has become the guide by which $5 billion in federal grants to promote reading proficiency are being awarded.
The new panel reflects a growing concern by the Bush administration that the United States risks losing its competitive edge as other nations outpace its performance in math and science. Citing figures from a report by the National Academies in his State of the Union address in January, President Bush unveiled an American Competitiveness Initiative to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into research in the physical sciences, and some $250 million into improving math instruction in elementary and secondary schools.
The panel is to examine the numerous ways the nation's 15,000 school districts teach math, and to make recommendations intended to improve American achievement in math and get students to tackle more advanced math earlier.
While the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is often called "the nation's report card," shows American students making steady progress in math — with fourth and eighth graders gaining an average of two grade levels in the subject over the last 16 years — eighth graders fell behind countries like China, Singapore and Hungary on an important international competition in math and science.
Dr. Faulkner, a chemistry professor for 25 years, said he was not taking the post with a position on how math should be taught.
"When the administration approached me, they did so in the desire to have someone who is experienced with educational issues, but not an intellectual stakeholder in any aspect of this problem," Dr. Faulkner said in a telephone interview. "I see my role as that of a shepherd."
The administration also named Camilla P. Benbow, dean at the Peabody College department of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, as the panel's vice chairwoman. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is expected to announce the rest of the panel members on Monday at a national math and science summit for girls.
The conflict over how to teach reading — whether by teaching children to recognize words in the context of stories or through more explicit instruction in letters and sounds — has its parallels in the fight over how to teach math, and the conflicts share many of the same political and philosophical disputes.
In traditional math, children learn multiplication tables and specific techniques for calculating 25 x 25, for example. In so-called constructivist math, the process by which students explore the question can be more important than getting the right answer, and the early use of calculators is welcomed.
According to a 2005 study by ACT, the college entrance exam organization, only 40 percent of high school seniors were ready to take the most basic college-level algebra course.
The math panel is also charged with examining whether students can learn high-school-level math in earlier grades, as students in many Asian nations do. A study by the federal Education Department suggested that students who passed advanced algebra in high school had a better chance of graduating from college.
The panel is expected to hold four hearings around the country and to offer a preliminary report by the end of January and a final report in February 2008.
Much as the National Reading Panel was criticized as being stacked with supporters of the more traditional forms of reading instruction, some educators have expressed concern that the new math panel may be similarly structured.
"What is needed is not a panel which has been selected to ensure a majority position," Solomon Garfunkel, executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications, wrote to Ms. Spellings.
"What is needed is honest, competent people who recognize the importance and difficulties in getting this right and who are willing to put aside preconceived notions and a specific political agenda," wrote Mr. Garfunkel, whose consortium, a nonprofit organization, writes math curriculums and supports the constructivist approach.
Kevin Sullivan, a spokesman for the Education Department, said "there's nothing preconceived" about the panel's outcome.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics set off much of the furor in the debate over math instruction when it issued new teaching standards in 1989. In 2000, the council modified its position to favor a middle ground in teaching that did not eschew the use of formulas for problem solving but said that students should also grasp the concepts.
"There has been real effort by various segments of the math community to find common ground," said James M. Rubillo, the council's executive director. Mr. Rubillo said he had "great hopes that this panel will honestly and openly find a path that will be helpful for the 15,000 school districts in this country that have to decide how to teach mathematics."
A big part of the problem, regardless of the teaching method used, is the shortage of qualified math teachers. According to the report by the National Academies, "The Gathering Storm," 41 percent of eighth graders in 1999 were learning math from teachers who neither majored in math nor studied it for certification.
Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times
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