Sunday, August 5, 2007

An Interesting Conversation

While not quite the Lincoln-Douglas debates, over the last several days, an old argument has been resurrected on Those not recently conversant with that long-standing free-for-all list likely don't know that after a decade or so as the wild west of mathematics education lists, where anything went and often did, in spades, the list owners have stepped in to bring peace, harmony, and bliss to this particular battleground in the Math Wars. Thus, the lion now lies down with the lamb, all is civility, no epithets are hurled, no ad hominem attacks launched, and decorum is the order of the day.

And yet, intriguing undertones, sometime imported from more venerable and genteel locations such as NOTICES of the AMS, 54(2007), pp 822-3

There, one may find an exchange between Jerry Rosen, a founding member of Mathematically Correct and a Cal State Northridge mathematician and Sol Garfunkel of COMAP regarding old questions about who is to blame for the alleged contemporary crisis in US K-12 mathematics education. Professor Rosen wrote:

NSF-Sponsored Educational Programs
In his Opinion article “Because Math Matters”, Solomon Garfunkel outlines true problems but draws wrong conclusions. His statement “We are not doing a very good job. U.S. students are falling behind students in most industrialized countries” is true, but his claim that the NSF [National Science Foundation] has “led the effort for innovation in mathematics education since the 1950s” is loaded as well as overtly political (something he claims we should avoid). I am not sure what the NSF was doing in the 1950s and 1960s with respect to math education, but it has been quite involved since the 1980s and in mostly bad ways. Look at some of the results of NSF programs’ de-emphasis on arithmetic calculation and algebraic manipulation and the (NCTM-encouraged [National Council of Teachers of Mathematics]) substitution of calculator usage for long division. Implicit in his analysis and many such writings is the opinion that teaching children strong computational skills is bad. But the example given is the poor performance of U.S. students. However, this poor performance has taken place during the NSF’s most innovative period, i.e, from the 1980s to the present. This is why the backlash against fuzzy math on the part of parents has been so extreme; during this time U.S. children have plummeted in math. A good example to study would be the New York City public school system and the CUNY [City University of New York] college system. It is acknowledged that in the 1940s–1960s the CUNY colleges produced more scientists (including mathematicians) and doctors (and various professionals) than any other college system. Furthermore, many of these people came from the working and middle classes. Doesn’t this need to be analyzed? I went through the NYC public school system and CUNY in the 1960s and 1970s, and many of my classmates ended up in highly successful professions. However, there were bad things, one of which was tracking minorities into programs where they were denied traditional approaches to education. One of the dubious achievements of reform movements of the 1980s and 1990s was that basic arithmetic competence was denied to minorities as well as to the white working and middle class children. Let me summarize: The U.S. became a world leader in mathematics between the 1940s and the 1960s. In fact, many of the countries that are beating us now sent thousands of their future scientists (and still do) to be educated in the U.S. Since the 1980s, concomitant with the rise in “innovative” teaching techniques, the U.S. has declined considerably in international comparisons. Garfunkel is wrong in saying this isn’t political; it is most definitely political. In fact, the NSF needs to immediately stop funding all education initiatives and start subjecting future education grant proposals to the same rigorous standards they use for mathematical/scientific research.

Sol Garfunkel replied:

Reply to Rosen

Rosen misstates the actual time frame for reform funding and as a consequence misplaces the blame for poor performance. The NCTM Standards were published in 1989. They were universally endorsed by all of the major mathematical professional societies. The Standards were in fact undertaken because of apervasive sense that we were doing an inadequate job of educating students in mathematics at the K–12 level. NSF funding of reform efforts began in the early 1990s, and the major reform curricula did not appear until the mid- to late-1990s. And at their height (there has been some drawback of high school programs since the math wars) the elementary, middle, and high school curricula achieved no more market share than 25%, 20%, and 5% respectively. It is clearly inappropriate to blame poor performance in the 1980s and 1990s on these innovative curricula. The inconvenient truth is that there were no good old days, just a lot of hard work left to be done.

Math-Teach Gets Involved

Lou Talman, a mathematician from Metropolitan State University in Denver posted a link to the above to math-teach under the subject "More Nonsense From Jerry Rosen, and Solomon Garfunkel's Reply"

After that, Wayne Bishop, another Cal State (LA) mathematician wrote:

"Jerry's letter strikes me as being spot on.. Could you be more specific as to what you consider to be nonsense?"

Lou Talman replied: "Sol Garfunkel explained it pretty well, Wayne. Do you disagree with Garfunkel?"

I posted, independently:

As Sol Garfunkel accurately states, Jerry Rosen's dates are badly
amiss, for starters.

As for the rest of the claims Jerry makes, they appear to be a very
unscientific attack on something he personally dislikes, grounded on
his n = 1 experiences as a student, and then adding 2 + 2 to get 5
regarding who and what is primarily to blame for underperforming
inner city students in the 1980s and 1990s. Any argument that pins
the blame on NSF/NCTM ideas and programs is badly flawed given the
reality of when the programs appeared, as well as their penetration
into the market. Moreover, their penetration in NYC in particular was
not very great until about 2004, and then only at the elementary
level. Jerry knows this. So does anyone paying attention.

Finally, it's unclear at best that anyone is "beating us"; the
educational sky has been falling in the United States, according to
one or more critics, since about 1845. During the ensuing century and
3/4, we went from a backwater to the most powerful nation in the
history of the world. I'm sure that lots of nations wish their skies
were falling in the same ways ours have been. While no one seriously
disputes that there's room for improvement in the quality of
mathematics education in this country, there's still a lot of debate
about where and how that improvement needs to be.

So what don't you consider to be nonsense about Jerry's letter?

Jerry Rosen replies to my post
I cc'd the above to Jerry Rosen, since he had not be a participant on math-teach for many years. He responded as follows:

Let me see if I can explain this as simply as possible:

The CUNY system had produced more doctors, lawyers and scientists than any other system in the country from 1940's -1970's and this is a system with a mostly middle and working class student body. Anyone intent on doing educational research, not pushing some agenda, would want to understand what was good about the the NY public school system and what wasn't. The rebellions of the 60's lead to open admissions in CUNY in the 70's (I went to Brooklyn College during the start of open admissions - anyone with a HS diploma could go). The CUNY colleges became moer integrated (obviously a good thing), but many of of the inner city minority graduates were not properly educated. I was involved with tutoring in the CUNY system and many of these
open admissions students couldn't do basic math and basic English. So there was a failure, a large failure, on the part of the NY publiuc school system. This was a failure due to racism. But, what is the answer??

Starting in the 80's, we have people starting say, with absolutely no research behind it, that we need to improve education of inner city students by reducing computation and whole language learning. But the problems that the inner city students were having was exactly that their basic skills were so poor. Those of you who support holistic, feel good, "let's keep the poor minorities feeling good about themselves'" have bought into very racist and amazingly harmful policies. You did no research and many obtained grants and restarted dormant educational careers on the backs on inner city minority students - it is racism,

My reply to Jerry Rosen

As of this entry, what follows is the most recent addition to the conversation, having appeared on Saturday, August 4, 2007. Interested readers should continue to check the math-forum website to see if things go further.

I posted:

First, the idea that current reforms could have caused past
shortfalls cannot remain unchallenged. You refuse to acknowledge that
the reason there were so many students who couldn't do basic math and
English must be PRE-reform. There's no logical basis to lay that at
the feet of what you call "whole language" and whatever name you
currently care to give to the reform math efforts (which are
manifold, not monolithic) in the 1990s and beyond. I'll call these
efforts, collectively, progressive reform of math education.

Since that initial premise is false, any conclusions you draw from it
are suspect. And as I've asked for the past 15 years, where is the
research that supports that the methods with which you were taught
were successful for the vast majority of students? Your own account
below indicates quite clearly that they weren't helping many inner
city kids. Some of us would argue that no one is truly well-served by
the kind of instruction that typified the mathematics teaching that
was not only typical in the 1960s, but remains extremely typical
today, especially at the high school level. But that's a debate not
likely to be settled readily. What is clear, however, is that there
were huge numbers of students of all ethnicities and economic
backgrounds who didn't learn much math in this country well before
any reform effort you care to name. Richard Rothstein's THE WAY WE
WERE? clearly documents beyond any doubt that educational experts and critics were finding deep problems with American literacy, math, and other aspects of public education as far back as Horace Mann in 1845 or so. Whether any of these critiques were well-founded isn't the issue so much as the notion that we've always had people in the US saying that public education isn't working. And we also all have good
reason to believe that while the sky isn't falling and never has been, we could improve the quality of mathematics teaching (as well
as teaching in other subjects).

But where is the research to support the idea that things were
actually working well for most kids, white, black, purple, or blue,
under the system in which you learned? Many individuals who thrived,
relatively, in that era, appear blissfully unaware that many, many of
their contemporaries were floundering in math (and other subjects).
But you can't really be one of them, given your social awareness, can
you? This isn't ONLY a matter of "racism": It's a matter of class,
and it's a matter of pedagogical ignorance. The idea that we knew
MORE about how people learn, either in general or in mathematics in
particular, 100 years ago than we do now is hard to swallow. The
methods we consider "traditional" actually aren't as timeless as we
may think, but they've been around for long enough to show that they
are, at best inadequate.

The attack on progressive reform as "experimental" ideas being
foisted upon innocent children by mad scientists or fuzzy ideologues
is a myth that has been spread as a result of the cultural and
educational wars of the past couple of decades. We can debate the
quality of the research and try to come to some consensus (if a
miracle occurs) about what comprises good, valid, and reliable
research methodology and refrain from changing the rules to suit a
given data set that favors or runs counter to our ideologies, but no
one can fairly claim that progressive reform in math education didn't
ground itself in research.

I won't muddy the waters here by going too deeply into the literacy
wars other than to say that having read a lot more about so-called
'whole-language' vs. phonics-first or phonics-only reading
instruction than I had when those issues started surfacing on this
list in the mid-to-late 1990s, I'm not convinced that the advocates
of the latter aren't guilty of exactly going off on a political,
ideologically-based tear to push an ineffective program of literacy
for motives that, if nothing else, appear to be very much about
personal profit and, as you say below, "pushing an agenda." The
recent scandals surrounding the US Dept of Education, Reading First,
and "reading czar" Reid Lyons and friends attest to some very
questionable practices. And this from the fellow who recommends
"blowing up the schools of education," with no reference to getting
the people out of the buildings first, I might add, suggesting a call
for terrorist tactics that would have landed any progressive
educators who suggested something similar behind bars under the
Patriot Act. One useful reference that documents the anti-progressive
movement's strategies and tactics in the Reading Wars is Denny
Taylor's well-researched BEGINNING TO READ AND THE SPIN DOCTORS OF SCIENCE: The Political Campaign to Change America's Mind about How Children Learn to Read. I would also recommend Frank Smith's work.

As for your last couple of sentences, they seem to be accusing those
who promoted the progressive reforms in mathematics education as: a)
wanting to "reduce computation"; b) of doing no research; and c) of
being racists.

As to the first, while there is undeniably a call for less emphasis
on mathematics AS computation for K-12 curricula in the reform
efforts that began with the 1989 NCTM Standards for Curriculum and
Assessment, very few people, if any, have ever called for eliminating
computation from the curriculum. It's simply not honest to claim that
teaching alternative algorithms and strategies, many of the first
leading students and teachers to more deeply examine why basic
algorithms for arithmetic work, and most or all of the latter being
perfectly legitimate problem solving methods used by mathematicians
and scientists, are attempts to water down curriculum. Quite the
contrary. The reform efforts of the late '80s and early '90s were not
put forth as the final word, but rather as frameworks for further
exploration and refinement. Had the responses from some people who
didn't like these efforts been less rhetorical and more fair-minded
and honest, I suspect we'd be much further along towards finding even
more effective materials and methods. Unfortunately, much energy and
momentum has been lost as a result of the ceaseless and unfair
propaganda campaigns to undermine any and all reforms.

The second point about lack of research simply does not stand up to
the slightest scrutiny. Again, you may wish to debate here the nature
of what counts as research, but to say that there's no research and
that people went off without doing any first or doing on-going
research after is simply untrue.

It is the last point, however, that I find most disturbing. I have
long complained that the charges of "liberal racism" that seem to
underpin and resound throughout the rhetoric of anti-reformers is one
of the most heinous and unfounded tactics I've ever witnessed as a
professional educator. I'm happy, at least, that you don't pussyfoot
around and actually use that word several times in your post. But I
think your accusations are not well-founded and not at all well-
directed. I will leave it to you to answer how you can find yourself
politically allied with so many openly right-wingers, conservatives,
neo-conservatives, and reactionaries, and yet still believe that they
all have a fundamentally similar social agenda to you and the other
anti-reform spokespeople who label themselves as liberals,
progressives, or socialists. I, for one, have rarely seen a more
utterly ironic and incredible alliance. Fortunately, I don't have to
rationalize my work in this regard. I don't find myself daily in
agreement with people about mathematics education issues with whom I would otherwise be horrified to agree with about much else. But for
you to hint that the people I've worked with and come to respect as
deeply dedicated professionals in mathematics/mathematics education
are "racists" or practicing "racism" is both utterly unfair and
utterly untrue. By the standards by which this list is now supposed
to be operating, I'd say "dem's fighting words." But out of deference
to the list owners, I will not respond in kind. I'll simply state my
previously-offered position that blanket accusations or insinuations
of "racism" against either members of this list or professionals in
mathematics and mathematics education have no place in this forum or
in this debate. Absent clear documentation that establishes beyond a
reasonable doubt that reformers or anyone else are acting out of a
"racist" agenda, that word and related forms should not be used.

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