Once again, this is a newsletter the bulk of which consists of a preview of an education column for the AWM Newsletter. I do have a chunk of local news to precede it this time, though. Nice cheerful news, which is a good thing, because the AWM one was written under pretty heavy influence of Katrina.
    For the benefit of possible newcomers, I need to give some background for the local bit. Back in 1998, a bunch of us decided that there needed to be more communication among the state's mathematics teacher educators. So we put together a week-end at the Sleeping Lady Conference Center in Leavenworth, and invited folks from all over the state. Enough came to make it clear that the idea was a good one, and thus was born WaToToM (Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics). You can read more about it at http://faculty.washington.edu/warfield/WaToToM/WaToToM.html . After the first heady period of just finding out who each other were, we progressed to issues, and began firing off position papers on sundry deeply felt opinions to what we hoped were the relevant offices in the K-12 school system. Just as we were beginning to wonder if anything had reached anyone, we were invited to be on a panel giving our opinions to the Professional Educator Standards Board, so we did that. We were a little dubious about the impact, though, especially after 14 months went by without follow-up.
    Yesterday came the payoff for the waiting. Four of us were invited to take part in a meeting where exactly the issues we are most concerned on were being worked on by exactly the people who are charged with doing something about them. Not only that, but they were genuinely interested in our input and pleased to discover that it fitted right in with their goals. The situation is incredibly complex,and there will undoubtedly be many potholes in the road ahead, but it is truly marvelous to have made this connection. Not only are we now in contact with a group to whom we have something to contribute, but we both like and respect them. We're in clover!

Now onward to the AWM column:

    Fair warning: this is going to be heavy. I was nicely on track for a cheery column translating and synopsizing a Dutch essay on soccer, mathematics and women that just re-emerged from my files. Then came Katrina, and the horrors she revealed about our society and the backs upon which it is built. I re-learned for the umpteenth time the difference between acknowledging a horrifying situation intellectually and really, deeply accepting its truth. My attempts to grapple with that truth brought to the surface two issues about K-12 mathematics that I had stashed because they made me feel helpless. Dealing with that threesome swamped the Dutch essay altogether, so I succumbed to the onslaught and made them the topic for this column – a topic with no discernible up-beat elements. Fortunately, just as the gloom was threatening to settle in totally some unexpected good news jolted me out of abandoning hope  and into just praying for another such miracle.
    Katrina needs no introduction, and I'm quite sure many of you, like me, are still shivering in the cold wind of the revelation that the government that theoretically represents us has absolutely no interest in saving, much less repairing, the lives of the people who were too poor to escape. The second of my painful issues is also familiar, but I doubt if everyone is aware how it is progressing. This is the No Child Left Behind Act. Since its passage in 2002 I have been angry that yet more teaching time was being converted to mindless testing time, angry that overburdened school systems were having to divert funding into administering yet more tests, and especially angry at the stress produced at all levels by a mandate that was all stick and, at the level of struggling schools, not even a mini-carrot, much less any genuine support. For all that, though, until this summer I never really managed to grasp the degree to which its title masked an absolute lack of concern for the education of children of poverty. In fact, possibly thanks to Katrina, I am currently inclined to see it as an active effort to insure that they can't escape that poverty, but that may be paranoia. In any case, the evidence clarified the situation for me came from various reports of schools that failed to meet the NCLB testing standards. The one closest to home for me was at the northwest tip of Washington, on the Makah Indian reservation. I have a huge admiration for the Makah Nation, which has pulled itself together to build a museum (the Makah cultural and research center), and to turn an abandoned Air Force base into a pleasant resort for outdoors-oriented tourists. The community was handed the demoralizing edict that its school was inadequate, and that parents had the right to withdraw their children from it. Those who withdrew are being sent by bus thirty miles along a narrow highway to the nearest school. Some of them are, that is. How many of the rest have simply withdrawn is anybody's guess. A handful get off the bus each morning – not necessarily the same handful. This then adds a further burden to the testing results of the school to which they are being bussed, which was already struggling. If it is closed down, the next school will be one that is fifty miles further down that highway. This is helping children? Not in my books. And stories like that are accumulating faster and faster. One lively collection can be found at www.susanohanion.org, and a particularly well researched single example in Jo Boaler's article "When learning no longer matters: Standardized testing and the creation of inequality" [Phi Delta Kappan, 84(7), 502 – 506] (also on-line at www.stanford.edu/~joboaler/pubs.html ).
    While I was digesting this information, there came into my hands an article by David Berliner entitled "Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform". It originated as a plenary address to the American Educational Research Association, which Berliner then expanded into a paper (on-line at various places – just Google it!) After disposing of NCLB in a few trenchant paragraphs, Berliner goes on to state his thesis, which he backs up with solid research results: educational reform that addresses only what happens within the schools has no chance of achieving the goal that most of us dream of, that of having an impact on the whole educational system. In fact, for all the hullabaloo, our educational results are not bad, even as measured by the international tests like the TIMSS, provided we only look at the children whom the system is reaching. In the regions where the poverty is deep, circumstances put many, many children beyond the reach of any teaching. Berliner points to a number of such circumstances. One that particularly struck me was a health aspect: most children experience several ear infections before they reach school age. It's not that serious a problem, thanks to penicillin and its descendants. But if you can't afford to go to a doctor, much less to pay for antibiotics, then it is indeed serious. Lots of children reach school age with their hearing partially destroyed – not a good state for starting learning. The examples go on and on, but the message is clear: if you want to do something about educating every child, do something about poverty. For a start, provide health care and day care. After that, but not before, schooling might be able to have some impact.
    That's a tiny sketch of a cogent and highly convincing paper. I had accepted its message intellectually, but it stayed a bit abstract. Then came Katrina. There were the children, suffering visibly and acutely the same things they and millions of others in our country have been and are suffering invisibly and continuously.  The loss of abstraction was devastating.
    I'm not sure how long that devastation would have continued to push me into a deepening gloom if a ray of hope had not landed with a thud in my inbox. It had to do with the infamous Math Wars. I wrote a column in 2002 proposing an attempt at Math Pacifism. It was written in fit of optimism, but since then the optimism has eroded considerably. It seemed to me that acrimony reigned supreme and no one was really listening to anyone else. I am delighted to report that I was wrong. Thanks to the efforts of Richard Schaar, a respected authority on math and science education who has managed to maintain neutrality, a small group of extremely articulate leaders from each side of the apparent chasm gathered in December, 2004. Acting on his suspicion that some of the disagreements might have more to do with how things were being said than with the actual content, they got to work exploring "flashpoint" topics and getting past the loaded terms that both sides use and the knee-jerk reflexes that both have developed. The resulting document, "Reaching for Common Ground in K-12 Mathematics Education" can be found at www.maa.org/common-ground/cg-report2005.html.
    For me, the very existence of that document is inspiring, and the description in it of how it came about even more so. It's not that the Math Wars come in the same category as poverty in the US. It's that the emergence of this effort in a situation where I had pretty much abandoned hope makes it possible for me to believe that maybe, possibly, perhaps some miraculous development might begin to change the way we as a country treat our poor. And with that tiny spark of hope, I can turn back to the teaching and learning and outreach that I am able to do,  with a renewed conviction that it has value. A very welcome conviction, since I have so much fun doing them all!