Monday, March 31, 2008

A Review and a Critique of the National Math Panel Report - PART I

On March 13, 2008, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel presented its Final Report, Foundations for Success, to the President of the United States and the Secretary of Education.

As with any education report there is a both a technical and a political aspect. Each of us will view this type of document through the lens of our personal bias. As much as I'd like to believe I am fair and objective, I know that I bring my own perspective to this as one who passionately believes that one can expect both mastery of skill and conceptual understanding, the what, the how and the why. Instruction that combines skill practice with rich problem-solving and exploration. I know I am not the only one who holds these beliefs and, to me, they are self-evident.

Since the inception of this blog 15 months ago, I have not wavered from this view. You can see this in the many letters I wrote to the National Math Panel which have been published on this blog to my interview of Prof. Schmidt, to my interview with Prof. Steen, to my post in Jan 2007 describing the genesis and reason for this blog. Repeatedly I have called for more coherence and consistency in K-8 math curriculum and beyond. Repeatedly, I have asked those in a position to make a difference to listen to our dedicated professional educators who have always known the truth of what is needed for our children's math education. Perhaps some of this has not fallen on deaf ears...

You may want to view the short video of an interview with Dr. Larry Larry Faulkner,
the chair of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. In it, he discusses the key findings of the panel, published in their recently released report.

In this post I will summarize and comment on this video interview. In later posts, I will comment on other aspects of the report.

Highlights of Dr. Faulkner's Comments
(much of this was taken verbatim from the video):

(1) We need to streamline mathematics education in the years leading up to algebra
(2) Streamlining is needed because it is well-known both inside the US and outside that we have too many topics in early grades that are covered too shallowly
(3) A principal recommendation is that we cover fewer topics and cover the most important ones more thoroughly.
(4) The panel focused on the preparation of American children for success in algebra. Algebra has a central role in mathematics curriculum, the first course leading into secondary mathematics.
(5) Success in algebra not only plays a central role because of its correlation to success in high school math courses, but also because of its correlation to college-attending and graduation rates and eligibility for the national technical workforce.
(6) Cognitive science informs us that children who believe that working harder can make one smarter, actually achieve more.
(7) To encourage their children, parents should make note of how common mathematics is in the world and how many jobs parents hold which make use of mathematical concepts.

MathNotations Reactions to Dr. Faulkner's statements:
(1) "...It is well-known outside the US and inside"! When did it become so well-known? Could it be when Prof Schmidt uttered WELL OVER A DECADE AGO his now-famous description of our math curriculum as "one inch deep and one mile wide"? You mean now his word will be heeded? Now that NCTM has recognized the need for a narrower focus as recently published in its Curriculum Focal Points? Now there will be new textbooks written that reflect this narrower focus? Is that what you mean Prof. Faulkner? Exactly who will be apologizing to the generations of students who have been exposed to such superficiality? Who will be apologizing to the dedicated educators who have been compelled to sacrifice mastery and deeper understanding for superficial coverage of a myriad of topics? Who exactly will be apologizing for not listening to Prof. Schmidt until now?

(2) We need to be informed by the research of cognitive scientists that a strong work ethic will lead to success, particularly in mathematics? That persistence and effort can lead to success in math!

This is the revelation I've been waiting two years to hear? Yes, I agree this is a wonderful message for all students to hear in all aspects of their learning. Yes, Prof. Faulkner, I believe we can also accumulate 400 million pieces of anecdotal evidence from our educators to support the truism that there is no substitute for hard work, particularly in mathematics...


Anonymous said...

Is part 2 underway?


Dave Marain said...

Not yet...
I need to shake this miserable spring cold that has knocked me for a loop.
I do plan on breaking down some of the key recommendations, but recognize that this report is somewhat anticlimactic in light of what Achieve has been publishing. Much of the report is consistent with NCTM's Curriculum Focal Points, but, most importantly, there appears to be vindication of Prof. Schmidt's call for more coherence (aka, one set of standards for all states)and a curriculum that probes deeper and covers fewer topics in each grade. I still do not believe there is explicit support for my centrist position, namely that one can find the time for richer investigations while still expecting mastery of skill.

One of the concerns expressed by a well-known math blogger is that fewer topics will not necessarily translate into greater depth by textbook publishers. Singapore Math texts are not 500 pages long but they do include rich problem-solving as has been discussed before on this blog. I do have concern that this could happen. More challenging problem-solving and investigations will probably end up in those ancillary materials that are often seen as an afterthought: "Well, if I have time maybe I'll do one of these. Might be a good filler right before a holiday or vacation..."