Thursday, March 13, 2008


First of several responses to the Report

Several Observations of Steven Rasmussen, Publisher and CEO of Key Curriculum Press, after reading the Final Report of the NMAP

A colleague of ours in mathematics education pointed out that the panel should be the “National Arithmetic Advisory Panel” because they have developed guidelines for an arithmetic curriculum, not a modern mathematics curriculum. I wholeheartedly agree. The over-emphasis in the report of a narrow set of skills and procedures leading to algebra, including a set of procedures the panel has inappropriately named as “the” standard algorithms, limits the mathematical horizons of U.S. students and reduces the likelihood that they will be prepared for the mathematics that will drive scientific research and economies Ant the report’s definition of algebra is date and could have been written for the 19th Century. in the 21st Century. For instance, data analysis and statistics--basic skills of both the scientific and economic workforce—are completely ignored in the report. Mathematical modeling and problem solving are only given lip service.

This report of the Bush administration fails to recognize that the greatest impediment to progress in the mathematical achievement of our children is the underfunding of education in the U.S., especially scientific education and especially scientific education in our urban centers. Just as the next generation is likely to witness the extinction of many species in our habitats, without a major increase in resource commitment, the next generation is likely to witness the extinction of mathematics and science teachers in their classrooms. Working conditions are too poor and support is too inadequate to motivate young people to dedicate themselves to teaching mathematics and science. The narrowing of the mathematical field as advocated in the NMAP Final Report only exacerbates this problem. If I were charged with summarizing “what is known that could support a major national effort that could succeed in improving mathematics achievement,” I would have focused on the need to commit resources at the federal and state levels to scientific education.

While the report claims to have examined 16,000 research publications and policy reports in its examination of mathematics education, the report makes many claims that fly in the face of scientific evidence. The report is highly opinionated, subjective, and political. For instance in its claim that “high school students enrolled in courses using textbooks featuring an integrated approach may not be in a position to take more advanced coursework in their senior year,” the panel cites “an analysis of high school mathematics standards, and one state’s standards in particular,” not research. Much research has, in fact, been undertaken in this area and the scientific evidence points in the direction that students using integrated curricula study more advanced mathematics, not less. In its findings on the use of technology, the report ignores mention of the most researched and widely used classes of technology for mathematics, open-ended investigative and modeling tools like our own software, The Geometer’s Sketchpad, or graphing calculators.

The NMAP Final Report seems to believe that a targeted, magic “algebra pill” can address the crisis in mathematics education in the U.S. And they attempt to support a highly subjective and narrow definition of mathematical knowledge as the direction our field should move in. This narrowing of mathematics education will further undermine the interests of our children in pursuing scientific careers and under-prepare them for the economy of the future. It will drive good teachers out of the teaching profession and discourage young people from entering the profession.

Nothing in the report points to ways to create more engagement of students in the study of mathematics. In fact, if one were to follow its mandate, I believe that we would interest fewer, not more, citizens in the pursuit of mathematical careers. One of the central problems in our mathematical classrooms is shear boredom—and that applies to teachers as well as students. A rich curriculum, even if focused, can motivate children to study more mathematics, not less. Teaching and learning, are after all, are voluntary pursuits, and we have to be aware that the subjects must be inviting if we are going to attract new recruits to our field.

This passage below typically blames the abused and neglected for their problems, not pointing to the discriminatory application of national educational resources and the “opportunity gap” that exists in U.S. Schools.

Children’s goals and beliefs about learning are related to theirmathematics performance. Experimental studies have demonstrated thatchanging children’s beliefs from a focus on ability to a focus on effortincreases their engagement in mathematics learning, which in turnimproves mathematics outcomes: When children believe that their effortsto learn make them “smarter,” they show greater persistence inmathematics learning. Related research demonstrates that the engagementand sense of efficacy of African-American and Hispanic students inmathematical learning contexts not only tends to be lower than that ofwhite and Asian students but also that it can be significantly increased.
Teachers and other educational leaders should consistently help studentsand parents to understand that an increased emphasis on the importanceof effort is related to improved mathematics performance. This is acritical point because much of the public’s self-evident resignation aboutmathematics education (together with the common tendencies to dismissweak achievement and to give up early) seems rooted in the erroneousidea that success is largely a matter of inherent talent or ability, not effort.

The section of the report regarding textbooks talks about length and accuracy, two important (and obvious) aspects of textbooks, but hardly the most important factors in curriculum. The absence of any comment or analysis of pedagogy, instructional design, levels of depth, etc., in this section of the report is appalling.

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