Wow! We have just had what was hands down the most exciting WaToToM week-end ever -- and that's saying a lot. To provide some perspective, not to mention an introduction for folks who have joined this list since I last wrote about WaToToM, I'll start with a little history:
WaToToM, a.k.a. Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics, had its first gathering in 1998 at the Sleeping Lady Resort and Conference Center in Leavenworth, where all subsequent meetings have also taken place. That one was very simply a gathering of people in Higher Education with the shared property of being teachers of (future) teachers of mathematics, and it had the simple goal of opening up thitherto non-existent lines of communication. To keep ourselves focused on our common underlying goal, we had folks from three high schools tell us what life is like in a high school
classroom and what had and hadn't been helpful in their preparation. We also had someone from OSPI (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) to tune us in at the state level. Over the next few years, we deepened our connections with each other, and panels of teachers from all three levels deepened our understanding of the K-12 world. Our contact with OSPI was broken for a few years by a series of misunderstandings and pieces of bad luck, which became increasingly frustrating as we increasingly realized that the united voice that we were developing needed to be heard outside of the Sleeping Lady. Thus began a series of open letters and position statements fired off to OSPI and the HEC Board and others. After several of those, WaToToM began to percolate into the consciousness of the folks at that level in the state. We began to get invitations to speak at task force meetings and take part in working groups, and OSPI began regularly to make sure they had at least one representative at our gathering. Our message shifted from "Thus and such needs changing!" to "Tell us what to do to be helpful!" This was an improvement. On the other hand, that still left the burden of figuring out what might be helpful in the hands of the OSPI.
The early prelude for this year struck a scary note, since the beginning of registration time coincided with the point when the national economic issues developed into local budget crunches. Fortunately, after the first few "I can't"s I began to get "I'm coming!"s. As the weeks went by and I saw who was going to be coming, I got progressively more delighted and optimistic about the prospects. The optimism survived a few minor glitches (like the discovery that the SUV I had triumphantly rented for the 8 of us who were left when bus plans fell through would hold either 8 passengers or their luggage but definitely not both) and proved to be very well founded. I think rather than list folks I will hit the high spots of the week-end, which will show not only who was there but why I was so pleased.
Friday night, as always, was allocated to getting acquainted. Saturday morning always starts with some mathematical fun to remind us why we love what we are doing. This time Ruth Parker led us in an activity she does with school administrators, with very simple rules and very many available complexities. Then we hit the deck running. The morning was devoted to the view of the current K-12 mathematics scene from inside the system. First up was Greta Bornemann, Director of Math Teaching and Learning at OSPI. Bringing us into the picture was a tall order, since so much is in transition there, but she got us a lot closer to the picture than any of us had been, and did a noble job of fielding questions (nobody talks to WaToToM without having a bunch of questions to deal with!) She has a very full plate, and some inevitable frustrations. Most current is her distress that school districts are taking the recommendation of curricula as requirements. She, with others, is putting a lot of effort into helping districts that are using the same curriculum, whatever it is, work together and share what they learn about meeting the new Mathematics Standards using that curriculum. There are many wonderful ideas out there and no reason why any curriculum needs to be jettisoned. Frustrations aside, though, she's pretty optimistic about what can happen in the state. And her very presence at OSPI contributed to optimism on our part. Further optimism was fueled by Cheryl Lydon, who spoke next. She holds a position whose very existence is a cause for loud cheers: she is the new Statewide Math and Science Director for the ESDs. De-coding slightly, that's the Educational Service Districts. They exist to help connect school districts with OSPI, and have for a long time. What they haven't always done is connect well with each other. In recent years they have come to realize that it would be good to do so, and the most visible evidence of that is that they have joined together to produce the statewide math and science position. Evidence of their excellent judgment is that they hired Cheryl to fill the position.
Next up was Mary Holmberg, from OSPI's Mathematics Assessment department. She had a tougher message to deal with, because we are all pretty rooted in our convictions about the WASL and she had to navigate the stormy waters churned up by the current situation. Even WASL's firmest supporters have to admit that the No Child Behind act did some pretty drastic damage to the functioning of the test, and some of the anger swirling around is well justified. On the other hand, part of the solution has been to throw out the thermometer because it registers a fever. That's the high school part. At the elementary school, the reports on how much time is actually used in administering the test are often contradictory, but the accusatory ones are much the loudest, so the test is being shortened. A lot of the shortening comes out of the side of WASL that makes it good: the problems designed to get students to make connections and do some reasoning and communicate their thinking (not necessarily in words, as is a common misconception.) Mary did her best to give us the straight story, and we appreciated her doing so. I very much hope that she stayed aware that the loud noises that ensued were aimed at the message, not the messenger!
The afternoon was geared to looking at what is going on outside of the system -- the idea being to open up the possibilities for flow of information and support between the inside and the outside. To that end, we heard Ruth Parker's description of work being done by the Mathematics Education Collaborative, and Jim King's of his work through the Park City Math Institute and the Northwest Math Interaction, and mine of work with rural school districts done in conjunction with Bob Lee of the College of Forestry and several members of the College of Education faculty. Then Bill Moore described the huge Transition Math Project, now in its 6th (I think) year of working statewide towards smoothing students' transition between high school and college. Part of that project is Project TIME, being run through Green River Community College. Stacey Snyder and Deann Anguino, both high school teachers, brought us up to speed on that one. The other thing that should have gone there (and got smuggled into Sunday morning because I bungled agendifying) was Dave Gardner talking about Explorations in Math, which is a new and terrific non-profit with the mission of creating a really solid math culture in the elementary schools they work with (they're at http://www.explorationsinmath.org)
Then came a change in tone. It built on some of the questions that had been fired at Greta and her straight factual replies to them, but it was fueled by a report from the vantage point of someone inside the Math Panel that has been (theoretically) providing a balanced oversight of the past couple of years' Standards-related activities. Kim Vincent has faithfully attended the meetings, thereby maintaining her blood at the boiling point. The panel was stacked from the beginning with strongly anti-reform members, and became more rather than less polarized as time went along. Presumably connected with this is the fact that the firm hired to review the Standards is strongly slanted towards traditional teaching. Most recently, a single mathematician working for the firm, who has published violent rants on the subject of reform teaching, single-handedly reversed an elementary curriculum recommendation made after a major committee of Washington teachers, mathematicians, curriculum specialists and others had spent massive amounts of time and energy studying curricula. Protests over that resulted in a heavy study by two Washington mathematicians contradicting his conclusion, and in the curriculum he rejected being reinstated on the recommended list. Two weeks ago Dorn single-handedly took it back off again. Now the high school curricula are up for the same process, and Kim sounded a loud alarm about the probable consequences.
That alarm fed directly into the next morning's session. First, though, came an evening with a very different flavor: we all sat down and listened to what kinds of K-12 outreach is going on at all the colleges and universities represented at this particular gathering. It was clear that we barely scratched the surface, and the only reason we stopped was that people's eyes were beginning to cross with exhaustion. Unambiguously inspiring.
Sunday morning we responded to the call to arms that had built up by bits in the course of Saturday. Phenomenal energy and drive which, thanks to the efforts of a few really good organizers, managed to be corralled into channels through which it can continue to flow. A brainstorming list that ranged from people to reach out to to messages to get out produced four categories, and almost everybody present signed on to work on at least one (and not just because I said they couldn't go to lunch until they did!) And in particular, we put together an open letter to Randy Dorn, requesting a chance to meet with him and give voice to a side that he has not been hearing. The letter got formalized in a car going home and put out for e-signatures by the wee hours. By evening we had 79 signatures from all over the state, from higher ed (both mathematics and education departments), K-12 teachers, school administrators and others in the education profession. We fired it off, with copies to the governor and the State Board of Educators and chairs of legislative education committees. Then we sent press releases to a bunch of newspapers around the state.
The open letter is attached. Ultimately it will go onto the website we are (re)designing. If you would like your signature to be added to it there, send me a note saying
I wish to sign the open letter to Randy Dorn on Fair and inclusive mathematics education policy in Washington State, sent on March 2, 2009.
WaToToM has always been a group with a passion for K-12 mathematics education. Now we have both a passion and a mission. Look out, world!
The Open Letter
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