Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Statement to National Math Panel

The following is excerpted from a statement sent to the National Math Panel on 9-1-06:

Comments to National Math Panel
Cambridge MA Sessions 9-13-06, 9-14-06

From: Dave Marain, Supervisor of Mathematics

Although I would prefer to be present and read this statement personally, the risk of not getting on after making a trip of several hours and the limitation to 5 minutes makes it somewhat prohibitive.

As I’ve noted previously, the limited opportunity for concerned educators and others to express their sentiments balanced against 30-45 minute presentations for textbook publishers and ‘established’ organizations does not send an encouraging message to those who feel the outcomes from this panel are predetermined. I, for one, am more optimistic than that, but the proof will be in the black and white recommendations.

From discussing this with the secondary math teachers in my department, with many concerned parents and with students over some time now, there is broad consensus on the following points:

* Problem: For some time now, we have observed and endured students’ deficiencies in arithmetic and their impact on the ability to handle algebraic processes, comprehend the rules of algebra and retain algebraic skills and concepts. Our educators see glaring deficiencies in students’ understanding of fractions and ratios. This is not acceptable.

Recommendation: Students should master the facts of arithmetic and develop proficiency with fractions, decimals and percents WITHOUT the use of the calculator. Using the calculator to promote conceptual understanding and solve real-world problems with ‘messy’ decimals or irrationals is however strongly recommended, We believe this should COMPLEMENT the mastery of arithmetic skills – no more than that.

* Problem: Algebra for All in 8th grade? The problem is that Algebra in New Jersey is not exactly the same as Algebra in New York, Algebra in California, and Algebra here in Cambridge! Were it not so deleterious to our children’s development of mathematics, it would be almost ludicrous to consider that textbook publishers are developing state-customized textbooks for Algebra 1 and other math courses. Although the differences are minor, they are nevertheless a reflection of a serious disconnect between what ALL of our students need and the need for publishers to meet the needs of individual education departments of 50 states. Why does it appear so obvious to our educators that it is insanity to have 50 different sets of state math assessments times several grade levels, yet it seems perfectly natural to governors and state commissioners of education. Testing companies are reaping the benefits of this, but are our children? Ironically, testing companies appear to be having difficulty keeping up with the demand for quality assessments. What’s wrong with this picture?

* First we have to make sure that we have ‘Arithmetic for All’ in K-7! Our consensus here is that the concepts and skills from arithmetic and prealgebra must be far more standardized than they are now. The ONLY way to insure equity for all is to standardize the curriculum and set the bar higher than it is now.
* Instead of developing massive texts containing beautiful pictures and wonderful applications to every vocation and applications that address every states’ requirements, we strongly believe that the time has come to step back and demand that essential content be given the highest priority. We feel that each of you on this panel needs to ask yourself the following question: How have our esteemed national math and science groups responded to Bill Schmidt’s concerns over a decade ago about a curriculum that is too broad and too shallow? Translating a text from Singapore is not the answer. We need to take the best knowledge we currently have about how children develop mathematical understanding and balance that with the skills needed for those ideas to take root and have meaning. How many of you on this panel have observed numerous math lessons in this country that reflect students’ ‘profound understanding of fundamental mathematics’. We can all cite a few instances for sure, particularly if you are personally working on such a project. We’re talking however about more than a small handful of classrooms. Why are Japanese students in an 8th grade classroom spending an entire class period tackling sophisticated problems that require analysis, conceptual understanding and skill? In fact, we believe that this kind of activity is precisely what enables a child to develop that profound understanding. Isn’t it all about the kinds of questions we ask and the questions we generate and encourage from our students? Isn’t it all about setting the bar higher? We believe it is. Problem-solving however should only be part of the picture. One cannot solve a problem without the proper tools. We do not believe that the majority of our children are currently provided with those tools. This must change!

Thank you for the opportunity to share our concerns. We fervently hope that the Panel will respond to these concerns and make the bold recommendations needed for our children to survive and compete in the 21st century. We await your response…

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