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.
What is the schedule for the panel's
upcoming meetings? Do they have work
groups, and how do those groups function?
Do they have hearings?
How does the panel receive input?
In my observations, children, from early on, seem to have much less difficulty in 'extending' patterns than recognition of patterns and 'rules'. This may be because the latter is on a higher rung of taxonomy but I believe it is also significantly impacted by the mental math and arithmetic proficiency needed to 'see' the pattern. Thus, as usual, these are not black-and-white issues. The 2 camps of math education are really 2 interdependent sides of the same structure. If only we could focus on examples of actual questions that students need to be able to tackle. There is far less politics in asking students to explain the 'rule of formation' of the sequence: 1,1,2,1,2,3,1,3,4,1,2,4,5,1,5,6,1,2,3,6,...