Another Pi Day Ruined by Presidential Politics
Their goals are reactionary and very much in keeping with the desire many of them have for vouchers, privatization of public education, and the abandonment of our fundamental democratic commitment to educating poor, minority, and other people who have been ill-served for the most part by the narrow, forbidding, and elitist style of mathematics instruction that makes most Americans fear and loathe the subject. And of course, a mathematically ignorant population is far less likely to be able to make informed decisions about political, social, scientific, economic and personal issues.
by Michael Paul Goldenberg
The NY Times reported on March 14, 2008, Report Urges Changes in Teaching Math. No little irony that this appeared on Pi Day, probably the only time in the school year when many mathematics teachers across the country try to find a grade-appropriate activity/lesson on the same topic. This is about as close as America comes to a national curriculum in mathematics. The rest of the time, districts are free to teach whatever they like, or at least to be on any topic that fits their state and district curricula.
Of course, in the wake of No Child Left Behind, what has increasingly been taught is solely those topics that will be covered in state- mandated high-stakes tests. The idea of an enrichment lesson on pi is only permissible because it is possible to find or craft lessons on that number that fit one or more curriculum strands, and there's little doubt that it pops up on many of those aforementioned exams. If pi weren't so ubiquitous, however, it would not find a place at the table in this test-mad era. In many districts, a teacher wanting to spend time looking at the mathematics of elections would be running the risk of a reprimand: discrete math includes the mathematics of elections and apportionment, and some states have a discrete mathematics curriculum strand, but typically nothing from that strand shows up on those big tests and hence there's "no point" in teaching it. Not even during a quadrennial presidential campaign year.
And now comes the final report of President Bush's National Mathematics Advisory Panel. If you followed the appointments to that group, you already know that it was heavily skewed by a political and philosophical agenda. In particular, the composition of the panel suggests that the goal of the White House and Secretary of Education was to undo as much as possible the work of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics various NSF-funded and related projects over the last two decades or so. With an administration that has systematically used politics to supplant scientific research results that don't fit its agenda, can this be any surprise at all? Indeed, the only real surprise may be that the few members who actually belonged on that panel were able to prevent a wholesale bloodletting.
There's very little but politics informing a report like the one produced by this panel. The proposals add little or nothing to what's been out there for a long time. It's a relief not to see the explicit denigration of progressive methods or calls for eliminating the use of calculators, but that's about the only good news. As for calling for balanced instruction - no duh. Any REASONABLE interpretation of the NCTM Standards volumes would have come to the same conclusion and saved a lot of time, money, and energy. And there would have been no need to "pack the court" with people who have opposed every progressive idea in mathematics (and, in the case of Sandra Stotsky, literacy) education of the last half century. A panel comprised of Liping Ma, Deborah Lowenberg Ball, Skip Fennell, H. H. Wu, with the addition of Hyman Bass and a few other reasonable folks might have come up with a much more dynamic report that would have been both reasonable and meaningful.
Would anyone want to start a pool as to the date (second?) that a member of anti-progressive reform groups like Mathematically Correct, NYC- HOLD or their friends in the conservative media makes the first public claim that the panel has called for the "death of reform," the discontinuation of any district using Everyday Math, Investigations in Number, Data, & Space, Connected Math, Interactive Math, etc., and a return to "the basics," taught via direct instruction, and without calculators, computers, or other "crutches"? As you read this, it's likely already happened. If you have any doubt, see the Wall Street Journal spin on the 2006 release of the NCTM Curriculum Focal Points.
The bottom line, however, is as follows: a) the report doesn't call for abandoning reform or traditional approaches but rather for some sort of balance, and b) the viewpoint of members of Mathematically Correct and NYC-HOLD and their supporters will not be modified no matter what any panel, group, or individual says or writes: they'll continue to push extremist viewpoints and lie about progressive mathematics education ideas, materials, and practices. Their goals are reactionary and very much in keeping with the desire many of them have for vouchers, privatization of public education, and the abandonment of our fundamental democratic commitment to educating poor, minority, and other people who have been ill-served for the most part by the narrow, forbidding, and elitist style of mathematics instruction that makes most Americans fear and loathe the subject. And of course, a mathematically ignorant population is far less likely to be able to make informed decisions about political, social, scientific, economic and personal issues. Cui bono?
Michael Paul Goldenberg
The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES