Thursday, May 25, 2006
Selected Highlights and Lowlights of the Panel’s First Meeting
Chairman Faulkner set a very positive and realistic tone in his opening remarks regarding the Panel’s charge reminding the panel that is should:
- consider mathematics education up to and into instruction in algebra and succeeding in algebra, the gateway to future success;
- develop guidelines useful for broad coordination of effort; and
- address scalable options, capable of being implemented in the near-term.
Vice Chair Benbow was the first to raise the critical issue of identifying two parallel, but different, paths: the need to raise literacy levels of all and the need to raise the top and produce more STEM professionals. She laid down an important marker by noting that they are not the same.
The highlight of the morning session was clearly Department of Education Deputy Secretary Ray Simon’s “Dept. of Education Overview.” Simon’s 15 minute presentation was a thoroughly engaging, articulate and foresighted presentation framed by the transition from his trusty slide rule to his pocket calculator. His message to the panel was that we “can’t afford to send young people on with slide rule skills into a world of calculator and computer requirements.” He lamented that today’s students cannot be “cool” with a calculator the way he was with his slide rule, and that for too many students, being cool and being good in math continue to be mutually exclusive. This led him to urge the committee to explore ways to inculcate a culture where math is valued and where kids ask to do SuDoKu at night as readily as they ask for a book.
But the fun began during the give and take that followed Russ Whitehurst and Dan Berch’s parsing of the president’s charge to the panel. This is where questions and comments revealed insights, styles and personal agendas. For example:
- Not surprisingly, Harvard’s Wilfried Schmid of recent “Common Ground” infamy was bluntest on the issues of NAEP (“clearly an inadequate test”), NSF (“the panel must address issues of NSF’s EHR continuing to support inappropriate curricula and wasting so much money”), and the critical prerequisites for algebra (“number sense, calculating relatively early, and calculating with fractions”). Note the irony of a panel charged with looking at the evidence being asked to ignore some of this evidence in light of personal biases against NSF programs, and note the conspicuous absence of patterns and generalizing in the list of algebra prerequisites.
- Most discouraging was the unvarnished bitterness and anger of Vern Williams, the panel’s only classroom teacher and a rabid traditionalist. Vern’s mantra throughout the day was “what is algebra?” “We need real algebra!” Responding to Liping Ma’s comment that algebra is taught in 8th grade all over the world, Vern snidely added: “Maybe direct instruction isn’t so bad after all.” He stated that we need to define algebra to move away from the “basic mush in 7th and 8th grade.” To which Deborah Ball, patiently and wisely suggested that if the panel reduced its work to “defining a curriculum” there was little chance of it fulfilling its mission.
- Among the more insightful comments came from Carnegie Mellon’s Bob Siegler who, noting the one year readiness gap already evident in Kindergarten, asked “how far back do we need to go,” clearly indicating that the solutions the panel would be seeking needed to extend beyond just school.
By the end of the day, four key themes had emerged that the Panel will apparently need to grapple with and that panel members appear to have significant interest in:
- Algebra – what is it, what’s needed to be successful in it, when should it be taught and learned, is it for all or for some and are their more than one algebras?
- Testing – what adverse impact does it have, how can it be strengthened?
- Teaching – what is it that successful teachers do?
- One math or two (math for all or math for some) – how do we raise broad quantitative literacy for all and also provide a formal, traditional rigorous mathematics preparation for the few?
There is no question that the panel’s work is going to be fascinating. This watcher, despite his initial concerns with the overall make-up of the panel, left the first meeting surprisingly optimistic that reason and good will prevail and that the panel will be able to come together to truly strengthen the U.S. school mathematics enterprise.
Monday, May 22, 2006
First Meeting Facts
In closed session from 9:00 a.m. to 9:45 the panel received an ethics briefing, a Federal Advisory Committee Act briefing and a briefing on travel policy. The meeting opened to the pubic and the panel then circled the room with self-introductions, followed by a brief intermission to await the arrival of Energy Sec'y Bodman for remarks and swearing in. This was followed by the obligatory National Math Panel Photograph (really about a dozen) and the individual signing and notorizing of Appointment Affidavits by each panel member.
Finally at 10:45, the panel got down to business with a morning session that included initial comments by Larry Faulkner, Panel Chair and Camilla Benbow, Panel Vice Chair; a very well crafted and humorous presentation by Deputy Sec'y Ray Simon of the Dept of Education providing the Department's perspective, a tag-team presentation by Diane Jones and Martha Snyder from the White House; and the NSF perspective by Deputy Direction Kathie Olsen.
Things finally got going at about 11:15 when IES's Russ Whitehurst and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Dan Berch opened discussion of the President's charge to the panel by providing initial perspectives on the meaning of:
a. the critical skills and skill progressions for students to acquire competence in algebra and readiness for higher levels of mathematics;
b. the role and appropriate design of standards and assessments in promoting mathematical competence;
c. the processes by which students of various abilities and backgrounds learn mathematics;
d. instructional practices, programs, and materials that are effective for improving mathematics learning; and
e. the training, selection, placement, and professional development of teachers of mathematics in order to enhance students' learning of mathematics.
Each of the five topics engendered brief panel discussion.
Following lunch, the panel went from 1:40 to 2:40 on the subject of next steps, finally agreeing to constitute 4 task groups:
- Conceptual knowledge and skills
- Learning processes
- Instructional practices
The panel then adjourned leaving staff to follow-up on task group preferences and appointments and next meetings.
First meeting perceptions of PanelWatcher to follow.
Saturday, May 20, 2006
Ed Week on "potential bias on national math panel
Some Worry About Potential Bias on the National Math Panel
By Sean Cavanagh
Supporters of a new expert panel on mathematics are confident it will help identify national strategies for improving student learning in that subject—even as critics ask whether its members have the classroom teaching experience, and the objectivity, needed to accomplish that mission.
The National Mathematics Advisory Panel, whose 17 voting members President Bush named last week, includes a number of mathematicians and cognitive and developmental psychologists from across the country.
But the advisory group, which was scheduled to meet for the first time May 22 in Washington, has only one member who currently teaches in a K-12 school, a lack of representation that some observers find puzzling, given the panel’s stated purpose of exploring math teaching and learning from basic math through subjects such as calculus.
Others worry that the panelists’ backgrounds suggest they will favor a particular approach to teaching math—generally speaking, one that stresses the need for drill and practice in basic computation at early grade levels, at the expense of problem solving.
“It does not represent a balanced view of mathematics,” contended Steven Leinwand, a principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research, a private research organization in Washington that studies behavior and social-science issues. He believes that teachers should cultivate students’ skills in understanding broader math concepts, along with basic skills.
The panel needs a stronger voice from “the excellent classroom teachers working with students day in, day out,” Mr. Leinwand added. “We instead have experts on teaching mathematics at the college level.”
‘Cut Through the Noise’
Similar charges of bias dogged the National Reading Panel, formed in 1997, which Bush administration officials have said is a model for the math group. ("White House Suggests Model Used in Reading To Elevate Math Skills," Feb. 15, 2006.)
The reading panel ended up recommending a strong emphasis on teaching phonics, a classroom strategy using a basic-skills approach that critics say the administration tends to favor in the awarding of billions of dollars in federal reading grants. ("Inspector General to Conduct Broad Audits of Reading First," Nov. 9, 2005.)
Others, however, say worries about a biased math panel are overblown. Tom Loveless, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution who was selected for the panel, has written about American students’ weaknesses in arithmetic, and he acknowledges that some skeptics are likely to question his objectivity. But Mr. Loveless, a former 6th grade public school teacher, said he favors building a range of student math skills, and he believes other panelists are similarly broad-minded.
“It’s very clear that our jobs here are not to go in with any kind of an agenda,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to cut through a lot of the noise surrounding math.”
President Bush established the panel as part of a broader, $380 million proposal aimed at improving student performance in math and science and making the United States more competitive internationally. A second piece of that proposal would have the federal government take a stronger role in promoting instructional strategies in that subject that are backed up by research.
For years, disputes over how to teach math, known as the “math wars,” have pitted those who say students need more grounding in basic skills against those who argue that more attention should be paid to building their problem-solving abilities.
Many educators and researchers who once fought those battles have called for détente. While disagreements remain, they say, educators generally agree that students need a balance between knowing number facts and basic procedures and having a broad understanding of math concepts.
Various factions of math educators have long accused the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, an influential, 100,000-member organization in Reston, Va., of placing too little emphasis on the basics.
But NCTM President Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, who was named to the panel, said he is willing to believe the commission could work past disagreements. “I’m certainly going into it with an open mind,” he said. “I have to be positive.”
One panelist and past critic of the NCTM, Harvard University mathematics professor Wilfried Schmid, reiterated his view that students should be “computationally fluent.” But he also believes that advocates from different camps are working more cooperatively today. He noted that he had joined other scholars and business representatives in identifying skills that individuals on different sides of past “math wars” would regard as crucial—from students’ understanding of fractions and algorithms to their proper use of calculators and their ability to do problems in real-world contexts. “We can see some consensus emerging,” he said.
Several panelists and outside observers said they believe far less research is available on effective K-12 math teaching than in subjects such as reading. A major charge of the panel will be to identify the existing research and where more study is needed.
Vern S. Williams, a math teacher at Longfellow Middle School in the 164,000-student Fairfax County, Va., school system, is the only panelist who is now a K-12 teacher.
On a Web site he set up on math topics, Mr. Williams has criticized the NCTM for promoting what he sees as “fuzzy” math standards. In an interview, he suggested the panel could encourage schools to require more demanding math lessons of elementary and middle school students. Many educators today, he said, wrongly assume that children cannot handle that work.
“We’ve been focusing for so long on pedagogy and teaching methods,” Mr. Williams said. “We need to focus on what to teach.”
* Dr. Deborah Ball, Dean, School of Education and Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan
* Dr. Camilla Benbow, Dean of Education and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, Peabody College
* Dr. A. Wade Boykin, Professor and Director of the Developmental Psychology Graduate Program in the Department of Psychology, Howard University
* Dr. Francis "Skip" Fennell, Professor of Education, McDaniel College (Md.); President, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
* Dr. David Geary, Curators' Professor, Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri at Columbia
* Dr. Russell Gersten, Executive Director, Instructional Research Group; Professor Emeritus, College for Education, University of Oregon
* Nancy Ichinaga, former Principal, Bennett-Kew Elementary School, Inglewood, Calif.
* Dr. Tom Loveless, Director, Brown Center on Education Policy and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution
* Dr. Liping Ma, Senior Scholar for the Advancement of Teaching, Carnegie Foundation
* Dr. Valerie Reyna, Professor of Human Development and Professor of Psychology, Cornell University
* Dr. Wilfried Schmid, Professor of Mathematics, Harvard University
* Dr. Robert Siegler, Teresa Heinz Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University
* Dr. Jim Simons, President of Renaissance Technologies Corporation; former Chairman of the Mathematics Department, State University of New York at Stony Brook
* Dr. Sandra Stotsky, Independent researcher and consultant in education; former Senior Associate Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education
* Vern Williams, Math Teacher, Longfellow Middle School, Fairfax, Va.
* Dr. Hung-Hsi Wu, Professor of Mathematics, University of California at Berkeley
* Dan Berch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health
* Diane Jones, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
* Tom Luce, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education
* Kathie Olsen, Deputy Director, National Science Foundation
* Raymond Simon, Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Education
* Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Director, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education