This is once again a Brown Bag report in which
Ginger-the-writer is trying to give a detached account of
what Ginger-the-speaker said at a seminar for which
Ginger-the-organizer had very specific hopes. Fortunately
all three of me are feeling quite positive about the event,
so this shouldn't develop into an argument between us.
For the benefit of those of you not on or near campus, I'll
lead in with the announcement for the Brown Bag in question.
It eventually developed the title "Math Wars and the
Are the Math Wars coming to town?
For over a decade, there has been raging a debate at the
national level so loud and so acrimonious that it has earned
the name of the Math Wars. The underlying issue is the
enormously important one of how children in grades K through
12 can best be taught mathematics. I didn't tune in early
on, but I know that the situation very swiftly turned so
heated that it completely polarized a significant portion of
the community, so that far too much energy has gone into
proving the other side wrong, rather than looking for a
solution. I was therefore overjoyed to learn that in the
past year a group of the leading lights from both sides has
been meeting with the explicit mission of finding common
ground -- and finding it! Perhaps in a few years we can
begin to use all of our energies constructively.
Recently I became aware through an e-mail sent to the whole
department that a forum entitled "Where's the Math?" is
about to take place in a Bellevue High School. The five
panelists all firmly state views which are the opposite of
mine. I am appalled to report that my first reflex was to
react to the style and format -- in short, to start
name-calling. Time and some conversations pulled me back
from that brink. What we need is civil discourse -- now, not
after we are all exhausted and battle-scarred. As
mathematicians, we have a voice in this debate. We can make
valuable contributions for as long as we distinguish between
our genuine expertise about mathematics and our highly
limited, if not non-existent, expertise about how children
can best learn.
I would like for us to have a conversation about this -- a
serious one. I suspect that we have a full range of views
within the department, but I will try to bring in some
outside voices as well, to balance the discussion.
So the answer to my initial question is No, the Math Wars
need not be coming to town, but it is going to take a
thoughtful and concerted effort of the local mathematics and
mathematics education community to prevent it. We will
launch the effort at a Brown Bag on Tuesday, April 18 at
12:30 in the Math Lounge.
Please come, whether or not you already have strong views!
That covers the efforts and desires of
Ginger-the-organizer. Before I go on to summarize what I
intended to say, which I fondly hope is what I did say, I
will report the initial very good news that the Math Lounge
was so full we ran out of chairs. I can't remember whether
that has ever happened before, but if it did I can't
possibly have been as delighted as I was yesterday. Most of
the roomful were mathematicians wanting to be better
informed. We also had folks from elsewhere on campus and
from off campus, folks with expertise about the
Standards-based curricula, folks who have taught high school
before and during the reform movement, and a couple of folks
with strong reservations about the curricula. I couldn't
have come up with a better combination if I had been able to
I launched the hour with as neutral a summary as I could
manage of where we are and how we got there. Thumbnail
version: in response to dismal outcomes from our last (post
New Math) back-to-basics movement, the NCTM got together
folks from a huge assortment of relevant populations and,
over several years, produced the NCTM Standards for K-12
education. Since it was descriptive rather than
prescriptive, it couldn't serve as a text or a curriculum,
so the NSF funded five groups of people at each level (K-5,
6-8, 9-12) to produce curricula, try them out and find
publishers for them. The Department of Education was
sufficiently impressed that they decided to require that no
state could get federal education funding unless it had its
own Standards. Here in Washington this was done with a care
that I am very proud of -- several years spent designing our
EALRs (Essential Academic Learning Requirements) followed by
several more producing a test that would correspond to them
(the WASL -- to which we could easily have devoted the rest
of the Brown Bag, but didn't!). California acted more
swiftly, and had new Standards in place so swiftly that they
were in the vanguard of users of the developing curricula.
Then a couple of professors at Stanford decided that the
curricula were not of an acceptable mathematical caliber and
initiated a movement that reversed the California Standard
and sent the state back to basics. The movement then spread
to other states. The resulting controversy has been
extremely detrimental to the functioning of the whole
mathematics education community for the a number of years.
Currently efforts are being made to repair the rift and
restore civil discourse.
Meanwhile, here in Washington some of us have spent the
past decade or more working to support teachers in their
efforts to teach "Standards-based" mathematics -- that is,
to teach by helping children to use their own knowledge to
build further knowledge. It's a non-trivial art that makes
strong demands of the teachers, and they need and deserve a
lot of support. The Seattle School District is considering
adopting NSF curricula at all levels to provide students
with a consistent movement through the levels. Bellevue has
done so for several years already. And this is now producing
some strong negative reactions.
I think that's all I said (it seemed to take longer than
that!) At any rate, it was followed immediately by an
excellent question (the kind we call a clarifying question)
from the floor: "Can you be more specific about what you
mean by Standards-based teaching?" Fortunately, Gini Stimson
and Elham Kazemi were on hand to save me from floundering
through any such definition. With care and coherence they
provided enough details to fill that particular gap. Then
the conversation became more general. In particular, as I
had hoped, two people who have negative feelings about the
current scene both spoke up. I can report with pleasure that
the ensuing conversation remained viable and almost always
civil despite a couple of spikes in blood pressure. In fact,
part of it continued for nearly an hour after the official
end of the Brown Bag and our understanding of each other's
points of view seems to me to have increased dramatically.
And that, I guess, constitutes a brag, because that is
exactly what I was after -- not conversion, but comprehension.
That seems a high, keen note on which to end, so I'll do so!