Wednesday, May 13, 2009

See How They Run, Like Pigs From A Gun. . .: Vern Williams and the NMP Report

Last week, there was a public conversation/Q & A session on the National Math Panel Report between two members of the body that produced it: Vern Williams and Francis "Skip" Fennell. Unfortunately, work commitments prevented me from hearing it live and attempting to participate by submitting questions. I had to satisfy my curiosity as to how anti-progressives through the voice of Mr. Williams, would try to spin matters by reading the transcript this morning.

Or, I should say, as much of it as I could tolerate given that I had made the error of eating my breakfast before assaying the task. Your mileage may vary, and it is to be hoped that stronger stomachs than mine can slog through it all. I gave up after Mr. Williams' third answer, but then, I'm dangerously close to overdosing on the rhetoric and nonsense of the educational right wing.

I will simply look below at the first few comments from Mr. Williams:

[Comment From Matt]
How do we use the recommendations to improve daily instruction for our children?

Francis (Skip) Fennell: I figure I will just jump in here too - I think the recommendations re: conceptual understanding, fluency and problem solving have immediate impact in classrooms - every day, as do those involve formative assessment, as starters here.

Vern Williams: I have been concentrating more on the basics of arithmetic even with my algebra classes because as the report stated, there is a problem with the arithmetic backgrounds of even our brightest students.

Yepper, the lines couldn't be much more clearly drawn between a progressive mathematics educator like NCTM's recent past president, Skip Fennell, and an apologist for business as usual in mathematics education like Vern Williams. Not that I have any objection to seeing that kids know arithmetic well. Or doubt that everyone would do well to have a deeper understanding of the many subtleties arithmetic contains, present company included. Maybe even Mr. Williams has a few things to learn about arithmetic, and, perish the thought, he might learn some of them from listening to kids. But rest assured, that's not part of his educational philosophy. Direct instruction and sage-on-the-stage uber alles.

Let me at this point insert some words from Mr. Williams own web site that I find incredibly telling:

My main goal is to support and mathematically challenge intellectually gifted middle school students and to help them survive the educational establishment's war on intellectual excellence.

During the past thirty years, I have experienced educational fads from brain growth plateaus to professional learning communities. Some of the more destructive fads involve those that have taken the math out of mathematics and replaced it with calculators, watered down content and picture books. Many outstanding traditional mathematics teachers have left the field because they were forced to lower their standards and replace them with fuzzy standards championed by the NCTM. I'm one of the lucky ones. I have somehow managed to teach Real math for over thirty years and have no intention of changing my methods.

This sort of thing is disheartening coming as it does from a fellow who is supposed to be a professional mathematics teacher. He spouts the usual reactionary hyperbole, attempting with a flourish of rhetoric to dismiss all innovations as "fads," all those who disagree with him as supporting idiotic, watered-down "fake" math, while he is one of the bastions of "Real math." Of course, there's nothing fake about the mathematics NCTM has supported. What Williams and his ilk object to is never grounded in a substantive charge that the mathematics being promoted isn't math. As some folks on their side of the debate like to say, somewhat ironically quoting Bill Clinton, "Algebra is algebra." And of course, "math is math." There's nothing fuzzy about the content of progressive mathematics books. It's the pedagogical approaches, the infusion of issues in applied problem situations and subjects perceived as politically liberal by the anti-progressives, and the emphasis on student-centered teaching and democratic core values that seems to be at the root of many self-named "parents-with-pitchforks" groups. (On that point, I always remind people that there was ALWAYS politics in K-12 textbooks: the exclusion of non-white faces, non-Anglo names, and indeed many social issues from those books fit the political agenda of one facet of American society, but that facet is on the wane. As they perceive that they are losing control of the more subtle sorts of propagandizing that tends to slip into various aspects of public education, they simultaneously have sought to undermine public schools through various means, not the least of which is test-mania via No Child Left Behind legislation, and to increase the privatizing of public education through vouchers, charter schools, and other programs and policies. Of course, none of THOSE tactics are political. And I'm the Emperor of China).

Here's a bit more from Mr. Williams' web site:

I had junior high school teachers who were intellectual and had a passion for their subject. Those great teachers helped me to develop a passion for learning and a respect for hard work that remains with me to this day. At Paul Junior High School in Washington DC, intellectual excellence was the norm and it was celebrated. There was no cooperative learning, fake self esteem, differentiated instruction or ten pound textbooks loaded with pictures and useless content. I decided to become a math teacher during my last year of junior high school because I knew that I wanted to return some day to continue the fun, the learning, and the celebration of excellence that I experienced in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades.

I am of course thrilled for Mr. Williams' experiences and the high quality of the teachers he had. However, he continues to imply that teachers with philosophies and approaches he decries do not have passion, are not intellectual, and in general are not fit to teach their subject. This is simply nonsense bordering on libel against colleagues who don't follow his beliefs, yet are highly-knowledgeable, deeply-dedicated professionals who dare to teach mathematics in ways different from him. Were I to suggest that Mr. Williams was unsuitable for his job because he decries cooperative learning or differentiated instruction (the other two comments about "fake self-esteem" and "ten-pound textbooks" are red herrings; I have written here before about the rhetorical use of "fake self-esteem" as a blanket criticism of student-centered education, and I know of no teacher who is happy about the size of textbooks that the mainstream publishers sell. However, the textbook culture we live in did not arise as a one way street in which publishers forced their will upon America. It took complicity by a lot of teachers, the vast majority of whom never heard of cooperative learning or differentiated instruction when they were selecting big fat books with lots of expensive colored pictures, none of which had or have a damned thing to do with progressive reform. In fact, Core Plus (published as CONTEMPORARY MATHEMATICS IN CONTEXT) is a very plainly presented textbook series with no color photos), yet it is always attacked by folks like Mr. Williams. Since part of the strategy of such people is to throw as much crap at reform as possible, they never state publicly that what might be true of one given book isn't true of another. Rather, all progressive books are lumped together and any flaw that is found with one is ascribed to all. It's clever, it's effective, and it's thoroughly dishonest. And despite having this called to their attention many times for well over a decade, nothing ever changes about the tactics and rhetoric that comes out of web sites that Mr. Williams proudly links to on his own site, like NYC-HOLD and Mathematically Correct. For folks who claim to be interested in "Honest, Open, Logical Debate, they likely can only accurately lay claim to the "debate" part, and that only to the extent that they sometimes have to speak with progressive reformers in a forum that resembles debate.

Returning to the conversation about the NMAP Report:

Let me follow up on Matt's question with one that may be relevant to some members of our audience. Are there recommendations in the panel's report that a relevant not only to teachers -- but to parents, for helping children? This one's for both of you.

Francis (Skip) Fennell: Well, sure - the fact that effort makes a difference. Teachers need support. They can't do it all. Parents and other caregivers can provide support at home, at rec centers, wherever. We needs kids to care about this subject - everyday.

Vern Williams:

I would hope that parents become more proactive in the math education of their children by researching the materials/textbooks used at their children's school. They would be wise to make sure that their children are receiving an excellent grounding in the basics.

Dr. Fennell addresses ways that parents can help their kids. Mr. Williams, however, is all politics. Parents, he says, need to be vigilant. And indeed, the spirit of vigilantism is exactly what informs so much of the atmosphere in the Math Wars. From New Jersey to California and back again, the radical right has enlisted and stirred up through fear and disinformation groups of parents who are sure that their kids are being led down the road to mathematical ignorance and some sort of socialist hell through the influence of progressive mathematics education.

I wonder if Mr. Williams, were he a science teacher, would welcome the incursion of religious parents into what he got to teach in his classroom. If he would be thrilled at being told that he needed to teach Intelligent Design with at least as much attention as he gave to legitimate science. If he would accept input from parents as to which science books he was allowed to use so that they could ensure that natural selection and the theory of evolution were taught in ways that made them appear to be mere speculation by secularists who want to undermine the moral and religious fiber of our country. I believe it is a safe bet that he would not. And yet he suggests that the way for parents to help their kids learn math more effectively is to monitor those textbooks. Yeah. Great idea, Vern. That's REALLY what it's all about.

One last excerpt from the discussion, the one that killed my willingness to read further:

Sean Cavanagh: Thank you. I will direct this next question to both of you, about teaching in Japan, and collaborations between teachers.

[Comment From Guest]
As seen in the TIMSS study, Japan does something where teachers are required to get together so many hours a week to work on perfecting one lesson plan. They focus on major drawback areas such as fractions, and work and rework the lessons together. Throughout the process the lesson is taught, with other teachers present to evaluate how effective the lesson is. Do you think a process like this would help math education in the lower grades.

Francis (Skip) Fennell: The Japenese Lesson Study model has become quite popular in this country and seems to be making a real difference as a Professional Development model. That said, just the opportunity to think carefully (as a group of teachers) has potential in improving teaching.

Sean Cavanagh: Just a bit of background about the panel:

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel was created through an executive order signed by President George W. Bush on April 18, 2006. The panel was given two years to produce recommendations, based on the “best available scientific evidence,” on the “critical skills and skill progressions for students to acquire competence in algebra and readiness for higher levels of mathematics.” The panel had 19 voting and five non-voting members, who included cognitive psychologists, mathematicians, representatives of think tanks and professional organizations and other math experts.

Vern Williams: Yes, however we need to first make sure that our elementary and middle school teachers understand the math content enough to actually plan and conduct excellent lessons as they do in Japan.

While I'd be the last person on the planet to suggest that we don't need to do everything in our power to increase the knowledge base of mathematical content in all teachers, and not just in grades K-8, it is astounding that each time something interesting is raised, Mr. Williams move is to turn the subject elsewhere. Again, rather than indicate that he has the slightest clue what lesson study entails or why it would be useful for teachers to engage in it, he goes to a standard right wing complaint about public school math teachers: they don't know their subject well enough.

No one denies that this is true, of course. What is ironic, in fact, is how much effort progressive mathematics researchers and educators have been making towards improving the content knowledge of teachers in the lower grade bands, while also trying to determine what that knowledge needs to be for effective teaching in K-5 and 6-8 (something the right wing doesn't ever do, because they turn up their noses at such research unless it carries the proper political messages with it). But are we seriously to believe that we should wait until some critical mass of K-8 teachers emerges with "enough" content knowledge to satisfy Mr. Williams and his friends before ALSO exploring increased cooperation (oops! that dirty word again) among professionals? Is not the point of lesson study, in fact, to deepen professional knowledge of math content, pedagogy, and lesson planning, amongst other relevant things? I pointed yesterday to a talk Jim Stigler gave at Harvard in which he says precisely that. There is nothing radical about Japanese-style lesson study. Unless, of course, it's radical to think that teachers can and need to learn from each other. But of course, that doesn't suit the mavericks like Mr. Williams who in part appear secretly happy to portray and believe themselves to be the smartest, best teachers in the room, the ones who are serious, the ones who are dedicated, the ones who teach "Real math," as he puts it. Everyone else? Incompetents.

Given three opportunities to speak about how to do something constructive, Vern Williams runs the other way. It's remarkable how the educational right wing is vastly better at telling us what not to do than it is at showing us how to do better than we've done using precisely the approaches they advocate for, approaches that have never served a sizable percentage, and possible the majority, of American kids in mathematics classrooms. Such failures and shortcomings are rationalized and glossed over time and again by Mr. Williams and his conservative colleagues. I do not in any way impugn his own teaching ability or professionalism, but I resent like hell his baseless attacks on those of me and my colleagues through his absurd blanket attacks on anything and everything progressive. It's just politics, not an interest in the maximum possible success of all kids, that fuels such attacks. And they cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

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