Friday, March 21, 2008


Really Says it ALL!

Presidential Math Panel Vows to Increase Learning Disabilities
Tuesday, March 18, 2008 5:17 AM
Gary Stager

In the last year of his term, the President of the United States and the
Department of Education are now trying to do for math what they did for
reading. The notable achievements of Reading First include massive fraud,
profiteering, junk science, federal control over classroom practice, fear
and hysteria. While the National Reading Panel was stacked with ideologues
sharing the same educational philosophy, the National Math Panel co-opted
the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) by appointing the
organization’s President to serve on the committee.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, never known for its
radicalism, swung hard towards “the basics” last year in its Curriculum
Focal Points and now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having
to disagree with NCTM’s President and the President of the United States.
“Skip” Fennell did neither his members nor millions of American school
kids any favors by participating in this unnecessary process.
These federal education expeditions seek to narrow both the range of
content and pedagogy permissible in public schools. The private and
religious schools the GOP wants to support with taxpayer-funded vouchers
are immune from these intrusions. The one-size-fits-all prescriptions for
what ails public education are justified by claiming that schemes are

The rigid definition of “scientific evidence” enforced by Department of
Education may be fine in testing remedies for restless leg syndrome, but
is ill-suited for the complexities of education. But hey, these are the
folks who have mangled the English language to imply that theory is merely
an unproven guess.

There is a lot wrong with the recent math report, but making Algebra the
holy grail of K-8 mathematics is wrong-headed and goes unquestioned.
Stressing the importance of fractions as critical prerequisites for
Algebra adds insult to injury.

In a world-class display of side-splitting math teacher humor, panel
member Frances “Skip” Fennell told the New York Times , “Just as
“plastics” was the catchword in the 1967 movie The Graduate, the catchword
for math teachers today should be ‘fractions.’“ What Fennell doesn’t realize is that the person who said, “Plastics,” in The Graduate was emblematic of everything wrong with society. “Plastics,” was a metaphor for a shallow, superficial, inauthentic culture focused on
the wrong values. The National Math Advisory Panel’s greater focus on
fractions represents a “plastic” version of mathematics that will do more
harm than good.

It’s easy to see how someone might think that several years worth of
fraction study prepares a child for Algebra. Fractions have numerators
over denominators, separated by a horizontal line. Many algebraic
equations have something over something else, also separated by a line.
That’s all you need to know. Right?

Not only is the progression from arithmetic manipulation of fractions to
Algebra tenuous, but neither of the assumptions underlying the value of
teaching fractions or Algebra are ever questioned. The President’s Math
Panel, like most of the math education community maintains a Kabbalah-like
belief in an antiquated scope and sequence. Such curricular superstition
fuels a multigenerational feud in which educators fight over who has the
best trick for forcing kids to learn something useless, irrelevant or

Despite the remarkable statement in the 1989 National Council of Teachers
of Mathematics Standards, “Fifty percent of all mathematics has been
invented since World War Two,” the NCTM has been in full retreat ever
since. Although much of this “new” mathematics is playful, practical,
beautiful or capable of being visualized via the computer, little new
content has made its way into the curriculum. Against this backdrop of
unimaginative heuristics and a leadership vacuum, math class has become
increasingly torturous for too many students.

Children who struggle to manipulate fractions do so because the skills are
taught absent a meaningful context in a culture where fractions are rarely
ever used. Fraction fans might argue that fractions are important in
following a recipe, but little cooking is done during fraction
instruction. Even if kids did get to learn fractions by cooking, they
might add, subtract or even multiply fractions, but one hardly ever
divides fractions. The fact that there are four arithmetic functions
doesn’t justify drilling kids for several grade levels. I wonder how many
members of the Presidential panel can coherently explain how division of
fractions works beyond repeating the trick – multiply the first fraction
by the reciprocal of the second fraction?

The Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel
does not dispute that teachers spend lots of time teaching fractions. The
report merely urges that teachers do even more of the same while hoping
for a different result. A definition of insanity comes to mind.
It would be bad enough if wasted time was the only consequence of the
fanatical fraction focus, but too many students get the idea that they
can’t do math. This damages their inclination towards learning other forms
of mathematics. Given the importance of mathematics and the widespread
mathphobia sweeping the land, students can ill afford to a diminution in
their self-image as capable mathematicians.

Educators should not be complicit in creating learning disabilities
regardless of what the President or his friends say.

Part of the problem with this report is what they decided to consider research. The inclusion criteria for studies included by the panelists ...

"Systematic reviews of research on mathematics education by the task groups and subcommittees of the Panel yielded thousands of studies on important topics, but only a small proportion met standards for rigor for the causal questions the Panel was attempting to answer. The dearth of relevant rigorous research in the field is a concern. First, the number of experimental studies in education that can provide answers to questions of cause and effect is currently small. Although the number of such studies has grown in recent years due to changes in policies and priorities at federal agencies, these studies are only beginning to yield findings that can inform educational policy and practice. Second, in educational research over the past two decades, the pendulum has swung sharply away from quantitative analyses that permit inferences from samples to populations. Third, there is a need for a stronger emphasis on such aspects of scientific rigor as operational definitions of constructs, basic research to clarify phenomena and constructs, and disconfirmation of hypotheses. Therefore, debates about issues of national importance, which mainly concern cause and effect, have devolved into matters of personal opinion rather than scientific evidence."
(p. 63, Research Policies and Mechanisms)

In the Appendix, on pg. 81, the Standards of Evidence are laid out as they were developed by a subcommittee. Specifically,

"In general, these principles call for strongest confidence to be placed in studies that
. Test hypotheses
. Meet the highest methodological standards (internal validity)
. Have been replicated with diverse samples of students under
conditions that warrant generalization (external validity)"

This "clinical trial" model is very problematic when applied to education, I believe. Maybe this is going down the Reading First road...
BTW, I had to rework the account I used to post the previous comment. I am not Annie (that is my daughter's friend who was on my computer, who has now been edite).

You're kidding, right? Have you ever taught Algebra? Have you ever tried to teach Algebra to students who come out of these reform programs that do not ask students to own mastery of basic facts and fractions?

Students are turned off to Algebra because they can't do it. And they can't do it because they don't have the basic skills required to successfully complete the course. And now the reform courses are asking kids who do not have basic skills to figure out Algebraic topic on their own (constructivism).

I began teaching in fall 1968 and had remarkable results. I've watched as TERC/Investigations and Everyday Masth have disabled scores of children. In Seattle WA and Bellevue we have had constantly expanding achievement gaps for disadvataged learners over the last decade. Seattle, Bellevue, and Clover Park were reform hot beds in the Puget Sound basin and still are. In 2006 both Seattle and Tacoma adopted middle school texts. Seattle adopted Connected Math2 and they had been piloting(??) CMP in almost every middle school classroom in the district. Tacoma ditched Reform math Entirely in 2006-2007 by adopting Saxon math k-8. To the surprise of many State test results gave a clear nod to Tacoma over Seattle at the middle grades and particularly so for Hispanic students.

Tacoma grade three results were the best of all but that is the lowest grade tested on the state tests.

The results for 2007-2008 will not be out until September.

I teach in an alternative high school and think the failure to teach arithmetic is a major source of our current problems.

I disagree strongly with Dr Stager on this particular issue. I've collected extensive testing results in WA state at various districts and also have formed my opinion from working daily with students.

I think that Gary Stager is off the mark with this posting.

I think that NMAP is on the mark.
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Simply asking the question, "you've got to be kidding" does not represent a research question. And, although I appreciate your experience, that too does not represent a research finding (particularly in a clinical research model). Therefore, I infer that such a response is one root of the problem with bias in the report. I agree that memorization and skill development are important. However, this is not the only aspect of mathematical reasoning. I do teach as well.
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