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Topic: [ME] Congressional Hearing: Jim Milgram Testimony
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ME] Congressional Hearing: Jim Milgram Testimony
Posted: Feb 10, 2000 12:00 PM
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From the Hearing on "The Federal Role in K-12 Mathematics Reform,"
February 2, 2000; Committee on Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on
Early Childhood, Youth & Families and Subcommittee on Postsecondary
Education, Training & Lifelong Learning
See [click on "Joint
hearing on The Federal Role in K-12 Mathematics Reform, then click on the
witness whose testimony you wish to read.]
Witness List

Dr. Judith S. Sunley
Interim Director
Office of Education and Human Resources
National Science Foundation
Washington, DC

Dr. Kent McGuire
Assistant Secretary
Office of Education Research and Improvement
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, DC

Dr. Mark Schwartz *
Livonia, MI

Dr. James Rutherford
Education Advisor to the Executive Officer
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC

Susan Sarhady
Plano, TX

Jim Milgram
Professor of Mathematics

Stanford University
Stamford, CA
* Joined by Rachel Tronstein, Student at the University of Michigan

Written Testimony of R. James Milgram, February 2, 2000

I am honored to be here today and to be able to share my observations on
the state of mathematics education in this country with the distinguished
members of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The K - 12 teachers in this country are dedicated professionals, deeply
committed to teaching our children. They persevere in the face of difficult
conditions and low pay. I have the utmost respect for them. But all too
often, their knowledge of mathematics is extremely superficial, and when
this happens they are easily swayed by trendy and unproven programs which
typically offer a superficial treatment of the subject, leading to weak
backgrounds in their students.

Perhaps a local parent described this situation best when she wrote me
recently that the curriculum was getting fuzzier and fuzzier, and she
"concluded that by and large most teachers support it because it makes them
feel OK about math - they understand language, not symbols." She continues,
"I cannot tell you how many times I have heard from administrators and
teachers, how, if they had had "this" math when they were in school,
perhaps they, too, would have been perceived as a 'math person'."

I am a research mathematician, and research in esoteric areas of
mathematics is essentially all I did besides teaching graduate and
undergraduate classes in mathematics at Stanford until four years ago.

Two things obligated me to spend much of my time for the last three years
studying issues related to K - 12 mathematics.

The first was some courses I gave in New Mexico, where I had too many
bright, very highly motivated students in my mathematics classes whose
third rate K - 12 educations in mathematics could not be overcome no matter
how hard these students were willing to work.

The second came from the Presidential Commission designing Clinton's
proposed national eighth grade mathematics exam. The commission - including
many of the foremost math education specialists in the country -
distributed a list of 14 proposed problems. I and my colleagues at Stanford
were amazed to find that 3 of the problems had serious errors. One was so
ill posed that it could not be solved. One had an incorrect solution
included with it.

We later testified to the Clinton commission about these difficulties, and
it became clear that the level of mathematical understanding on the part of
the mathematics educators on this panel was unimpressive.

There is a distinction between math educators who are primarily interested
in questions involving education, and mathematicians who know about
mathematics. While educational issues are unquestionably important there
has been a tendency recently to focus on educational questions at the
expense of mathematics content.

I was disturbed when I realized that it is these people who are determining
the mathematics that our children learn in school. I was especially
disturbed in view of the dramatic drop in content knowledge that we have
been seeing in the students coming to the universities in recent years.

Since 1989 the percentage of entering students in the California State
University System - the largest state system in the country - that were
required to take remedial courses in mathematics have increased almost 2
1/2 times from 23% in 1989 to 55% today. And CSU admission is restricted to
the top 30% of California high school graduates!

This failure has important consequences for the nation. Although large
numbers of US students entering the universities say they are interested in
majoring in technical areas, very few actually get such degrees today.

The total number of technical degrees awarded to US citizens recently is
approximately 28,000 yearly, while there are currently about 100,000 new
jobs in these areas each year. Last year congress had to mandate an
additional 142,000 new work visas for technically trained people, and these
visas were used up by June 11, 1999, so great was the demand.

A large part of the blame rests with mathematics programs of the type
recommended by the Department of Education recently as exemplary or

All but possibly one of the programs in the list recommended by the
Department of Education, represent a single point of view towards teaching
mathematics, the constructivist philosophy that the teacher is simply a
facilitator. Standard algorithms for operations like multiplication and
division are not taught, but students are advised to construct their own
algorithms. At all stages hand held calculators are used for arithmetic
calculations. There are no means for students to develop mastery of basic
arithmetic operations. Algebra is short-changed as well.

These programs all are designed to closely align with the 1989 NCTM
Mathematics Standards: standards which explicitly embody all the principles
above, and specifically require that skills in algebra be downplayed.
Indeed, the co-chairman of the Department of Education Expert Panel on
Mathematics, Steven Leinwand, recently stated that the curricula endorsed
by the Department of Education "create a common core of math that all
students can master." Not material that all students NEED to know or SHOULD
master, simply material that HE believes all students can learn.
(Incidently, Department of Education statistical analysis - C. Adelman,
1999 - show that success in algebra in high school is the single most
important predictor of degree attainment in college.)

The high school programs, Core-Plus and IMP, both place heavy emphasis on
topics such as discrete mathematics at the expense of basic algebra, and do
not come near the level indicated in e.g., the new California Standards for
most of the topics there.

However, programs such as these are completely consistent with the previous
California Mathematics Standards. Consequently, at least three of them,
CPM, Mathland and IMP, have been in wide use in California for up to 10 or
more years. (MathLand and IMP were developed in the late 1980s at the same
time that the 1989 NCTM Standards were being developed, and were introduced
into California Schools by 1989.)

Recent studies of the SAT mathematics scores of high schools which use IMP
showed a consistent and significant decline over the last ten years.
Moreover, high schools that use IMP in California scored below the state
means, and those that expressed satisfaction with the program scored, on
average, 10 points lower than those which were dropping the program or
otherwise were dissatisfied with it.

It was the introduction of CMP and TERC (another NSF funded curriculum
published by Dale Seymour -- designed for grades K - 5) in the Palo Alto
school system that sparked the initial parental revolt which became the
California Mathematics Wars.

It was the introduction of Everyday Mathematics in the Princeton Township
School District, which led to the parental revolt in Princeton. This led to
the involvement of a number of faculty members in both mathematics and
physics at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study in
Princeton in trying to reform mathematics teaching in the district.

It was the use of TERC in one school system in Massachusetts, which
prompted numerous members of the Harvard Mathematics Department to sign the
open letter to Secretary Riley.

The support for these programs in the Department of Education is ultimately
the responsibility of the Education and Human Resources Department, EHR, at
the National Science Foundation. EHR funded the development of at least six
of the "exemplary and promising" programs.

It is also probably worth noting that at the present time there is no valid
research which shows that any of the programs of this type are effective.

At least equally important are the Systemic Initiatives funded by EHR,
which have the objective of pushing the districts where these initiatives
are awarded to adopt curricula in mathematics which align with the 1989
NCTM Mathematics Standards.

In California, there is one systemic initiative from EHR still functioning,
a grant to Los Angeles Unified School District, LAUSD, the nations second
largest district with 711,000 students. The people involved in this
initiative resisted attempts to change the system in place there, while
similar districts such as Sacramento Unified began to make major changes.
Two years ago, the two districts had equally bad scores - around the
thirtieth percentile - on the California Statewide mathematics exams. This
last year LAUSD had essentially the same score as previously while the
Sacramento Unified scores jumped dramatically, particularly in the lower
grades, due to their shift away from whole language and constructivist math.

Incidently, I had been told two years ago that getting a grant from EHR in
a mathematics related area required that one buy into the list of ideas
discussed above. As a test of this I obtained all the (over 4000) abstracts
for the last 9 years from EHR for awarded grants that involved mathematics.

I tested a random sample of about 200 for a few key phrases such as NCTM
Standards, group learning, and discovery learning. All but four of them
contained at least one of these phrases.

In conclusion, I believe that the sad state of mathematics education among
high school graduates in this country is primarily the responsibility of
two agencies: the Department of Education and Human Resources at the NSF,
and the Department of Education. The programs they develop and push simply
set too low a standard.

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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