Newsletter #136    The Louise Hay Prize and an OSPI Conference 1/07

My most exciting chunk of news is already old hat for a fair number of you, but it's still too exciting to me for it to be left by the wayside: on January 6 at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans the Association for Women in Mathematics did me the honor of giving me the Louise Hay Award for Contributions to Mathematics Education. I've been wondering since September how I was going to produce a newsletter that was properly celebratory without annoyingly chanting "Me, me, me!" As it turned out, Peter Kelley of the University Week took care of the situation nicely. I have only to link you to his article: and there's nothing more I need to say, except how very grateful I am to the AWM, to Selim Tuncel for writing the nomination, to all the people who supplied the wonderful prose he used in the nomination, and to the folks who turned up at the Prize Session to roar and cheer and stomp and make me feel very thoroughly supported.
Even though that was just a week ago, a bit more news has been generated since then. This week OSPI (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) ran its big annual conference in the Seattle Convention Center. I could only get to one day, but I enjoyed that one a lot, and even learned some things. The first session I went to was by Uri Treisman of the University of Texas. The title was New Approaches to Raising Student Mathematics Achievement, and he explained at the beginning that he was aiming to share information that was not the result of educational research, because fully researching an idea takes a great deal of time, nor on the other hand just cheery reports on something somebody tried once that looked really neat. Rather it was approaches with plenty of data to back them up, just not a full formal panoply of studies.
His first and most heartfelt advice was to build on our strengths, of which, he said firmly, Washington has many. He then provided a lot of charts, bar graphs and general comments illustrating that in the past decade and a half we have improved on many fronts. A lot of his information came from the Education Watch reportput out a couple of months ago by the Education Trust, which you can find at . One that Uri specifically mentioned was that on the NAEP test (aka "America's report card") Washington's African American fourth graders outperformed those in any other state. There were lots of other bits as well, but I didn't get most of them down. Very heartening, at any rate, especially given the amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth that seems to fill our newspapers.
On the other hand, that doesn't mean that we have a sufficient collection of laurels so we can rest on them -- just that we have strengths to build on. From there out he was saying things so close to the things I have been feeling that I tended just to sit saying "Yes! Right!!" Strongest message was that the absolutely key thing is to support teachers and give them a coherent system within which to work. He went so far as to say that it really doesn't matter which curriculum you use, which is the only point at which my eyebrows went up (or maybe down). But I'd certainly go along with the main point, which was that teachers need to buy into the curriculum, not have it imposed, and they need to have consistency and coherence and professional development and community support and ... but here we get into dangerous territory. I know Uri said most of that, but I might be carrying it farther than he ever did.
I will be getting more specifics on the data from Uri, and they will become available on the website that I am -- did you hear that? -- I really am going to get online in the next week or two in an attempt to provide a stable source of straightforward information about what's up with Washington's K-12 mathematics. Stable and as unbiased as I can make it.
Two other tidbits stuck with me. He has been looking into building achievement among English Language Learners, and said that someone (maybe the Dana Center that he directs, maybe someone else) has compiled a list of 700 words that need to be introduced and worked with because a child will not pick them up properly in ordinary conversation. The example he gave was "suppose", which intrigued me. Is it only English Language Learners who lack exposure to the mathematical use of that word? I don't suppose ... oh, never mind! The other nice bit was a study he brought up when someone asked about what at the college level we have been calling "Math across the Curriculum." He didn't say much about it, but the title seems to me to suffice: "The unnatural suppression of mathematics in other subjects"!
The other two sessions I went to were more like old home week. Both were about about projects I already knew about. I went on the excuse that that way I got to fill in a lot of details I was lacking. The first was about two collaborative efforts linking UW (College of Education and Department of Mathematics), K-12 Schools and the OSPI. Wonderful things are being done at both elementary and secondary levels by people I am very proud to be a colleague of. The other was about an east-west collaboration in which folks from Eastern Washington and WSU are working with folks from UW and the Seattle Schools to extend some existing materials on "Content Knowledge for Teaching Mathematics". That session was fun because I got to play with some mathematics problems -- just what I like to get other people to do!
Trying to sum up why I was so pleased with the day, I think the main point was that I was surrounded by a collection of very lively, very much engaged people (many, many people!) all focussing their energies on multitudinous aspects of educating our children. And that is a very heartening crowd to be in the midst of!

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