Monday, May 12, 2008

Quirky Investigations: More Nonsense From an Old Source (Part 1)

In the Math Wars, when it comes to hating progressive reform there are pack animals and solitary beasts. There are the hyenas of Mathematically Correct and NYC-HOLD, and then there is the lone, if rabid, wolf, William G. Quirk. Our Bill has long been a voice of prejudice and extremism in the face of efforts to improve the quality of mathematics teaching and learning in the USA. His latest screed comes predictably on the heels of the all-but-useless political tract spewed forth by the National Math Panel: our Willie's (ahem) contribution to the Math Wars is "2008 TERC Math vs. 2008 National Math Panel Recommendations."

This is a political tract so execrable that it deserves to be taken apart piece by piece and exposed for the ugly propaganda it is. Let's start with the title. There are three fundamental bits of idiocy in it. First, there is no such thing as "TERC Math." TERC is not a textbook or a series of textbooks. It's "a non-profit research and development organization whose mission is to improve mathematics, science, and technology teaching and learning. TERC, founded in 1965, is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. TERC staff includes researchers, scientists, and mathematicians, and curriculum and professional development specialists who ground their work on inquiry-based approaches that deepen all learners’ understandings." One thing they have done is to produce a set of texts for elementary mathematics called INVESTIGATIONS IN NUMBER, DATA, AND SPACE. This is a widely-used "reform" curriculum that, along with EVERYDAY MATHEMATICS, a K-6 program created by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Program (UCSMP) and a few others, has been both praised and attacked over the past decade and a half as part of the Math Wars.

However, virtually any time INVESTIGATIONS is mentioned by a vehement anti-reformer, "TERC" is substituted for the actual name of the program, as if somehow the authors and publishers hadn't given it an actual name. Of course, there are at least two factors at work here, on my view. The more obvious one is sheer laziness. It's so much faster and easier to type "TERC," after all. And maybe some of these critics aren't able to spell "Investigations." But the more subtle effect, one that may be unconscious but which is consistent with people who call any reform math program, method, text, author, or advocate "fuzzy," and a host of similarly prejudicial epithets (and yes, I'm well aware that I return their fire in kind. However, I didn't start the mud-slinging, cheap name-calling, etc. The Mathematically Correct page that lists a host of such names was up before I'd ever heard of them. You can't make this stuff up), is that in the ear of the average parent, this math program sounds like "Turk Math." Not that any political conservative would want to trade on American fear and suspicion of Muslims, of course.

The second lovely bit of sophistry in Mr. Quirk's title is the use of "vs.": the absurd suggestion is that TERC created INVESTIGATIONS to somehow oppose the National Math Panel (the PRESIDENTIAL Math Panel!!! What sorts of Communists are we dealing with here?) when in fact INVESTIGATIONS began in 1990, when the current fraud's FATHER was in office. As we shall see, Quirk repeatedly attempts to suggest in his article that somehow the NMP report came out and TERC replied by creating INVESTIGATIONS as a counter-offer. Yes, that's ridiculous, but lies, absurdity, and mendacity are the order of the day when anti-reform attack dogs like Quirk are let loose to try to terrorize parents, politicians, and school officials.

Finally, there is an implicit assumption in both the title of Quirk's essay and throughout its body that the NMP has widely-accepted legitimacy and that any sane person in the field of mathematics would agree with its report unquestioningly. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. The NMP was appointed by a Republican administration that has systematically eschewed reality and science for politics and cronyism. This is an administration that backed READING FIRST, a horrifically expensive and useless reading program that has recently been shown to have no impact on improving reading, at a cost of billions of taxpayer dollars. Don't fret, of course: as we saw in the Hurricane Katrina crisis, GWB & friends are doing a heck of a job. And let's not mention the $3 trillion dollars it is expected that Iraq will have cost us, according to a Nobel Prize-winning economist. So you can be sure that they packed the NMP with hacks who by and large had the required viewpoint on mathematics teaching.

Could there already be some math textbook projects in the pipeline that are aligned with the Panel's say-nothing recommendations, backed by the Bushies and created by those with hands deep in government pockets? Nah! Now THAT'S a bunch of progressive paranoia. Just look at the track-record of READING FIRST: everything strictly above-board. No child's parent's wallet left behind. It's for the KIDS!

Suffice it to say that there is reason to question the idea that the NMP represents the best available thinking and research about mathematics teaching and learning, this despite the presence on the panel of Deborah L. Ball, current dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, a widely respected researcher, former elementary school mathematics teacher, and mathematics teacher educator extraordinaire. Also on the panel was Liping Ma, she of KNOWING AND TEACHING ELEMENTARY MATHEMATICS fame (and deservedly so). And the panel also had Francis M. "Skip" Fennell, then president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). With three such respected mathematics educators on board, what could go wrong with the NMP? The sad answer is: everything. But that has been discussed and documented elsewhere.
So much for Mr. Quirk's quirky and deceptive title. In Part 2, I will examine some of his "substantive" complaints about INVESTIGATION's alleged failures to anticipate and meet a document that was published only a few months ago. It goes without saying that no currently published curriculum at any grade level could honestly claim to have anticipated, adjusted to, or met the demands of the NMP report, even if the authors and publishers believed that the report and panel had the legitimacy and authority to demand ANYTHING. But of course, the panel, like NCTM in its various standards volumes published since 1989, does not demand. It recommends. Apparently, having been among those who was unable to make that distinction when viciously criticizing those NCTM publications, Mr. Quirk has lost any sense of what "recommends" means. Were that the worst of the flaws in his "analysis," there would be little reason to analyze his piece. But of course, he has much, much worse to offer. And whether he believes the lies and inaccuracies he serves up is far less important than whether others do.

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