Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why Do Anti-Progressives Need To Lie?

The following appeared in a video at a Ridgewood School Board meeting about the INVESTIGATIONS IN NUMBER, DATA AND SPACE elementary mathematics program in use there:

"The literature of reform math has changed history, painting a dichotomy wherein its proponents state that all former math teaching required memorization of algorithms without understanding and that students had to “check their brain at the door” before math class.

I didn’t invent that expression. The official TERC Investigations web site reads, “otherwise intelligent and curious children who check their brain at the door as math time begins.” That’s how they characterize 'math before TERC.'"

Is this an accurate quotation? Yes, as far as it goes, and up to the word 'begins.' But the last sentence is an outright lie, as is her claim in her opening sentence. Look at the context of the quotation as it appears on the TERC site:

"Teachers see it all the time: otherwise intelligent and curious children who check their brain at the door as math time begins. "Just give me the rule" they demand, when asked to solve a problem. These children have learned, from previous school experience or from home, that mathematics is just following a bunch of rules that don't often make sense. Fortunately, teachers using "Investigations" are seeing fewer and fewer students with this behavior. Most students who have had "Investigations" since the early grades expect math to make sense and look for reasons behind steps and procedures they encounter."

Any mathematics teacher will tell you that this is accurate. Kids do demand to be given the rule, they do not want to be asked to think (it's not what they've been led to expect in math class; quite the opposite, in fact), and they resent being asked to articulate their thinking, even though it is only through showing how you do your work that anyone can evaluate what you've done: a raw number at the end could be a good guess, a wild speculation, copied from someone else, or the result of erroneous thinking that resulted in a lucky right answer for the wrong reasons. Every mathematics teacher knows this, and I suspect every thinking adult (and most children) know it, too.

But where is the blanket claim about "all math teaching before TERC" or "all math teaching" at all? It's not there. It's not implied. It's a total invention of an anti-reform activist parent Linda Moran, who dislikes the Investigations program and is determined to see it eliminated by any means necessary, including utter distortions of the truth. This isn't a fluke. This is the fundamental Big Lie approach that has become the stock in trade of anti-liberal, anti-progressive thinking, both regarding education and other aspects of our society, in the last 35 years or so. And in the years following 9/11, it appears that we're back to Barry Goldwater's old claim that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." I'm not sure that the late Arizona Republican believed in out and out lying, however (which might be why he wasn't elected president). I think even Senator Goldwater would have thought that the misquoting, quoting out of context, distorting, exaggerating, selective use of statistics, and outright lying that have become ubiquitous since groups like Mathematically Correct and HOLD sprung up in California in the 1990s are patently unethical attempts to manipulate the public view on what comprises good mathematics teaching.

Does Linda Moran not realize she is distorting the truth? You can watch her video statement and you can read the transcript as posted to one of the anti-reform sites in Ridgewood, and judge for yourself.

On my view, this isn't an accidental distortion or a careless addition of a statement that no one at TERC and no reform advocate would make or take seriously. We all know that there have always been good mathematics teachers out there. Ideas that cropped up in the 1989 NCTM Standards volumes did not all emerge from nowhere at the sessions during which the book's many parts were drafted. I've seen veteran teachers who were clearly implementing many of the precepts and ideas from that volume in their practice and had been doing so long before the volume appeared, let alone its companion and successor volumes. But it is clear that there are too few such teachers and too little such teaching.

What NCTM, NCSM, AMTE, and other groups have tried to do is to promote better mathematics teacher education and better mathematics teaching for all. The anti-progressives appear deeply threatened by any attempt to broaden the outreach of mathematics to every child. They have called this "dumbing down" the curriculum (while at the same time complaining that programs like INVESTIGATIONS, EVERYDAY MATH, CONNECTED MATH, CORE-PLUS, IMP, and many others are "too difficult" for kids or "too difficult" for teachers). They call the books "fuzzy" and "Rainforest Algebra" and a host of other charming epithets, the result of which has been to inflame some parents, scare school boards and administrators, and ultimately engender counter-epithets such as "nostalgia math" and "parrot math." For good or for ill, however, the shrill voices of the anti-progressives have the ear of the media and have been able for the most part to drown out those who challenge their views.

It's time to stop the lies. It's time to confront ideologues who rely on distortions and disinformation. It's also time for those who advocate for reform to stop sticking their heads in the sand about what's going on out in the world. NCTM and other groups that claim to represent mathematics teaching and teacher education need to take a stronger stand to support the best teachers and programs against these unscrupulous and irresponsible attacks.

At the same time, the publishers and research projects that have helped to promote and develop innovative mathematics programs need to do a vastly better job of helping teachers understand what these new programs are about and to vigilantly eliminate the kinds of mindless teaching that might forbid students from using standard algorithms, insist that all children MUST use manipulatives (if a given child prefers other methods and is successful with them) or any other extreme view or practice that could be turned against reasonable reform methods and ideas. While I've never personally witnessed such teaching, the anti-reformers swear that this happens routinely. Given the dishonesty that seems to so completely inform their movement, I will believe these anecdotes when I see a teacher behave so unreasonably. However, it is the responsibility of NCTM, AMTE, NCSM, as well as all the NSF project leaders and the publishers of the progressive curricula to actively work against any such extreme and inflexible practice. Doing so will benefit everyone and make it that much more difficult for people like Linda Moran to get away with making irresponsible and unfounded claims.

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