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

Prevention Thereof"

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

design it!

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!