***************************************** From the Boston Globe, February 6, 2000. p. C 5. See http://www.boston.com/ *****************************************
Teachers object to plan to alter math standards
By Andreae Downs
Many educators around the state, including the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, are alarmed about proposed revisions to the state's math standards, which they say could hurt progress made in teaching the subject.
At issue are revisions to the 1995 state standards, or frameworks, which were interpretations of standards from the National Council of Teachers of Math. Endorsed by the National Science Foundation, the council's standards were published in 1989.
The proposed changes to the math frameworks, scheduled for a vote Feb. 23, would dilute the 1995 standards and shift the emphasis toward previous ways of teaching math, according to critics.
Sandra Stotsky, the state's deputy commissioner for academic affairs who supervised the revisions, calls such allegations fear-mongering.
"Hysteria has been whipped up to distract from the basic issues," she said via e-mail from Romania, where she was consulting for the US State Department on teacher training. "The changes made were mainly to clarify the vague standards in the 1995 framework. That 1995 framework was criticized by the field and by those developing the assessments as being too vague."
The 1989 standards of the National Council of Teachers of Math were aimed at accommodating students' learning methods.
"The traditional way in which math was taught - and for all intents and purposes that's what we've had for the last 30 to 40 years - was fairly ineffective for most kids," said Mary Eich kindergarten-through-eighth-grade mathematics coordinator in the Newton Public Schools. "We know this anecdotally by the number of adults who feel they are not good at math."
Stotsky said that the proposed revisions in the state's frameworks draw from a new draft of the council's standards to be released in April. This National Council of Teachers of Math document integrates input from research mathematicians, who faulted the original standards.
Every five years, the state Department of Education revisits its frameworks. State standards for each subject were called for by the Education Reform Act of 1993.
But the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and many other educators say that the proposed math revisions are much more than a clarification. The association has called them "educationally problematic."
"We don't see these as minor changes," said Sheldon Berman, superintendent of the Hudson Public Schools. "They are fairly significant."
Left out of the proposed revisions is any consideration of how math is taught, according to Rich Feigenberg, who teaches math to grades 7 and 8 in Cambridge. "Almost all the language about students being engaged by real-life problems, about students being made to enjoy math, to be excited by math, to be encouraged to pursue further studies in math, is gone," he said. Instead, there is "a breakdown by what every student should know by the end of each two years ... more and more like a laundry list."
The proposal also returns to stressing individual disciplines in the upper grades, with algebra in grade 8 and college-level calculus as the ultimate goal. "A very large number" of high school math teachers "want single-discipline courses, not integrated courses," Stotsky said.
Yet the superintendents' association contends that the changes are both unnecessary and counterproductive.
"The year before we move to high-stakes testing, it's very important to have consistency," Berman said. "To change now will compromise the MCAS [the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] and school accountability. ... We've spent a lot of money on curriculum, professional development, and monitoring implementation. To now go back and redo all of this is costly, and adds to the skepticism about reform."
Stotsky contends that the revisions are insignificant enough that they should not impact the MCAS - state tests for grades 4, 8, and 10.
"The revisions are all minor," she wrote. "The strands [or major topics] are the same, and whatever changes are being made will be made clear to the public when the final version is presented to the board."
Critics, however, contend that Stotsky's changes reflect those proposed by Mathematically Correct, which in the mid-1990s organized university-level mathematicians and parents to reinstate traditional math curricula in California.
Mathematically Correct objected, in part, to the lack of much traditional computation - getting examples of how to solve a math problem and then practicing it by doing several more - in the California curriculum.
"The schools have an obligation to make sure all kids learn what the standard algorithms are for the basic arithmetical operations and be able to use them if they find them more efficient than the ones they have constructed themselves," Stotsky wrote. Algorithms are the way in which a problem is solved.
"Middle-class parents teach their children the standard algorithms when they find out they are not learning them in school; low-income kids don't have parents who can do this," she added.
But, proponents of the present standards say memorization and traditional computation have not been dropped from the curriculum, just de-emphasized in favor of children understanding how math works.
"How is it equitable to turn working-class kids into $5 calculators?" asked William Kendall, math curriculum coordinator for Braintree's public schools. "Middle-class kids have a richer math experience to draw from. In prep schools they aren't dwelling on the standard algorithms. They don't get them without an understanding of the connection of math to the world."
Stotsky joined Nobel laureates in math and research mathematicians, some of whom are aligned with Mathematically Correct, in signing a letter published in the Washington Post in November that questioned the standards of the National Council of Teachers. The letter objected to the US Department of Education's endorsement of several curricula based on the council's standards.
That letter notes that the department did not consult "active research mathematicians."
But many educators disagree with these mathematicians. "The last time we had research mathematicians write K-through-12 math curricula, we got New Math," said Kendall.
Stotsky, however, says that there is no study indicating that integrated math curricula work."There is no body of peer-reviewed research I know of to support integrated math curricula," she said. "That is why the battle has occurred. It's like the whole language/phonics war. If the evidence were there for integrated curricula, there would have been no war."
Fred Gross, a K-through-8 math specialist at the Sudbury Public Schools who is on leave for a year to work at the nonprofit Technical Education Research Centers in Cambridge, noted that the current frameworks have been in place for too short a time to evaluate them.
"We've had this curricula in place for less than five years in most places," he said. "How do we know whether they are good or bad yet, or in need of change? It makes no sense to make major changes before we really know their impact and effectiveness in schools."
On the other hand, "we have a significant database that these 'traditional' methods haven't worked," said Susan Jo Russell of Technical Education Research Centers, who develops council-based curricula in urban schools.
Critics of the proposed revisions have asked that the vote wait until the new draft of the council's standards is released. Many contend that only those who agree with Stotsky have been invited to meetings where the proposed revisions have been drafted.
"When the initial frameworks were written, it was a two-year process, with a big turnout and a lot of people," said Kendall. The revisions "need a longer, fairer process. People feel railroaded, ignored, and isolated."
Stotsky said the department has been careful to attend to all the comments on the frameworks, and has invited teachers to help clarify standards for each grade level.
In the long run, Kendall said, the ones who lose in a curriculum controversy are the students "who get jerked one way and then another," and the local communities "who have to throw out whole sets of books."
"Don't we all just care about the kids?" he asked.
Math teachers will discuss the frameworks revisions on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Newton North High School cafeteria. **********************************************************
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) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org