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Topic: Mathematician reacts to Open Letter
Replies: 2   Last Post: Nov 29, 1999 10:27 PM

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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Mathematician reacts to Open Letter
Posted: Nov 29, 1999 5:49 PM
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Note: Judy Roitman is professor of mathematics at the University of
Kansas. She is also a member of the writing team for NCTM's Principles and
Standards for School Mathematics that will be released in April, 2000. As
the reader may know. Professors Askey and Wu are two people who signed the
Open Letter in the Washington Post. Prof. Roitman wrote the letter below to
a small list-serve which included several people who signed the letter, and
it should be read with that understanding. The letter was not written as a
public letter.

Prof. Roitman has given permission for putting the letter out to people of
my list serve. We thank her for this.

The letter to Riley made p. 3 of my local paper today; the article was
written before the press conference unveiling the letter was even held.

To say that I have been upset about that letter since I first read it is a
gross understatement, but I hesitated to say anything, out of respect for
the people who signed it. The death of a friend brought home to me what
bothered me most about it. Now that its organizers have shown their
effectiveness at public relations, I would like to say very clearly what I
said privately to Dick Askey.

I consider this letter unethical. It implicitly impugns the integrity of
those who disagree with it, and does so in a deliberately public forum.

It is also unethical in the way it is constructed. It uncritically cites
reports of those who dislike these curricula, without making it clear that
many mathematicians --- including distinguished ones ---- support the
curricula (the physicist who signed it from our university did so under the
impression that the mathematics community was united in its condemnation).
It gives the impression that the authors of these curricula were not
thoughtful when they made their decisions (whatever else you may think of
them, the writers of the NSF curricula definitely thought hard about what
they were doing), and that they are not willing to listen to thoughtful
criticism. It misleads. For example, several of my colleagues (who
received the letter in a mass mailing from the physicist who signed it)
believed that Steve Leinwand's quotes were from the report of the Riley
committee. Ignoring the way people actually read when writing a political
piece is unethical and demagogic.

Finally, it is unethical in the way it is being distributed. How can one
respond? How many people would have to write how many letters to how many
newspapers to counteract this? And how effective would this be? Instead
of informed debate we have vituperation that precludes discussion.

Any tactic, any process, that manufactures villains and heroes is itself
the enemy. I would say this to anyone of any opinion, and I say this now
to Dick Askey and Hung-Hsi Wu, two mathematicians whose opinions I have
valued and defended. Dick was quoted in my local paper as saying he signed
the letter in order to empower teachers who did not want to adopt these
curricula. There are better ways of doing this. And what of the teacher
who does not want to adopt one of the many standard textbook series?
or Saxon's rather radical text? or God knows what other curriculum ---
most of them have serious flaws somewhere. (A parenthetical example of a
standard curriculum gone wrong: In the version of a grades 5 and 6
standard curriculum that our district adopted 6 years ago some major
concepts were used before they were introduced - i.e., they blew scope and
sequence in a rather spectacular fashion. The results in the classroom
were pretty terrible, especially for teachers blind-sided by the fairly
reasonable belief that something had been introduced in an earlier grade
that wasn't. I am assuming that people complained privately and the
publisher cleaned up its act. That is how these things are usually done;
that is how they should be done.) When we were revising the October draft
of the Principles and Standards we didn't sit around hooting with laughter
at the idiocy of those who had severe criticisms. We took their word
seriously. We modified a lot of what we'd said previously. Where we did
not agree we still tried to understand and honor their deepest concerns.
Whether we succeeded or not is for everyone to judge in April, but the fact
is that we did not condemn them to the outer depths as worthless creatures.

I hope that those on this list who signed the letter will have second
thoughts as they speak to the media. They may think they've won this very
small battle, but there is a larger war going on against mathematical
ignorance, and we will all lose this war if we can't treat each other with
Judy Roitman | "Whoppers Whoppers Whoppers!
Math, University of Kansas | memory fails
Lawrence, KS 66045 | these are the days."
785-864-4630 |
fax: 785-864-5255 | Larry Eigner, 1927-1996

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


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