Thursday, March 25, 2010

You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up (or can you, if you're James Milgram?)

If someone sent this to me without the accompanying link, I'd never believe it was real. Sadly, it's very real.

R. James Milgram, a renowned mathematician who has long been in the forefront of opposition to progressive mathematics education reform, was interviewed for something called the Baltimore Curriculum Project in 2006 and the entire interview appears here.

However, the following excerpt is perhaps the single most bizarre-sounding thing I've ever encountered in the history of the Math Wars (and that's saying something).

Where Dr. Milgram got these notions from I have no clue. Who the mathematics educators are that he claims hold the views he mentions below would be amazing to discover, if such people actually exist. My guess, however, is that if they do, they're almost certainly not in the mainstream of the mathematics education research community today.

Perhaps he found someone from a more conservative era of NCTM and the research community who actually believes what Milgram states. If so, that is hardly grounds to make the assertions about a large number of mathematics educators.

Dr. Milgram cites NO specifics. He seems to be in fact making this up as he goes. And on my view, it has absolutely nothing to do with the real world. I've been involved in mathematics education officially since I started graduate work at University of Michigan in 1992. I've attended many conferences of mathematics education researchers and teachers. I participate in many on-line discussion about mathematics education and have corresponded individually and in small private lists with dozens of university mathematics educators and researchers, both in the US and abroad.

I have NEVER heard or read anyone else say anything even remotely like what Milgram asserts below. And I believe he has no facts to support his claims. Even the interviewer appears completely caught off guard by the assertion that there's a conflict between mathematics educators and other professors of education, and that the former feel constrained by the latter and disempowered by them.

Further, his off-the-cuff claim that there is "a lot more [agreement] than you would expect" amongst mathematics educators with the anti-reform traditionalists Milgram represents appears to be another howler he invents for the occasion.

If this is actually what Milgram believes, and the general community of mathematics educators and other school of education researchers and professors has gotten wind of it yet has remained to a person silent about it, I'd be amazed. I think this interview has sat unread by anyone in a position to expose it for what it is. Or else people are being far too polite to reply.

Not being quite so polite, I challenge Dr. Milgram to back up his claims about what professors of education see as the purpose of education, what mathematics educators generally believe about their colleagues in schools of education, and what mathematics educators believe regarding the views that Milgram espouses about mathematics teaching and learning. I think he'd be very hard-pressed indeed to find more than the tiniest trickle of support, if he can find any current working mathematics educator or other ed school professor who backs any of his points.

Here is the excerpt to which I am referring:

Q: Why do the philosophies of mathematicians and educators seem to vary so widely?

A: The people holding the power in the education community today hold the belief that the major function of the public schools is to keep children out of the workforce.

The recollection is the horrors of child labor from the 19th century. The objective was to keep them out of the workforce as children, but that was it. They also believe that kids should have a good time in school because implicit in their belief is the conviction that kids will not have a good time as adults.

Q: That's shocking to me. I've read about the Math Wars, but I've never hear that viewpoint expressed.

A: The debate in the Math Wars was between math educators and mathematicians. Somehow the people in the education schools proper stayed out of it. But when you come right down to it, you have to deal with the people in the education schools.

Ultimately and what really was remarkable to me when I got to know a number of these math educators is they were consistently telling me of their feelings of powerlessness. We were assuming they were the ones that are responsible. They don't necessarily agree with us 100 percent, but they agree with us a lot more than you would expect.

Sure, Dr. Milgram. And maybe I'm a Chinese jet pilot.

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