The Road to Building Critical Mass, Or How to Bring Real Change to U.S. Mathematics Education

The Road to Building Critical Mass, Or How to Bring Real Change to U.S. Mathematics Education

Nakonia (Niki) Hayes Columnist

First, Politics Require Understanding and Use
Mathematics education reformists warn us to keep politics out of the math “debates.” That’s a lofty and ideal goal. Political actions too often cause more problems than they solve as people see their issues as “wins” and “losses” that support egos and turf.

But keeping politics out of education issues, including mathematics, is no longer a reality. Putting the right people to work in that world is the tricky part. A successful program in any profession needs qualified individuals “working the program.” The arrogance has been, for years, that only the reformists had “qualified” people to talk about mathematics education. Imagine their surprise to learn there are those on the other side of the argument who are equally qualified to speak on the issues.

In the meantime, reformists have used their powerful political allies, originally at the National Science Foundation, to help fund the disastrous modern history of mathematics education. It is reasonable to conclude that politics must be embraced by those who oppose the NSF programs and who want real, successful curricula of numeracy.

Second, Look for a Model

A model is offered that is now confronting the disaster of whole language and its effects on reading literacy. It is only because of new, major political muscle that reading literacy is being rescued from the reformists’ methodologies that produced a generation (or more) of non-spellers and illiterate readers. This literacy recovery has been achieved because Pres. George Bush was joined by Sen. Ted Kennedy in sponsoring the No Child Left Behind legislation. That legislation included billion-dollar funding to support a return to proven scientific teaching methods of reading, and develop critical masses of educators and students.

Called Reading First, the program can give insight on how power players in the mathematics conflicts can achieve success. There power players exist in mathematics, mathematics education, businesses, and among legislators who want a balance of math instruction that includes both conceptual understanding (the reformists’ program) and principles/basic skills (the traditionalists’ program).

Third, Learn from the Model—Save Time, Energy, and Dollars
The steps in this model are explained by Sol Stern in the City Journal, Winter 2007, in an article entitled “This Bush Education Reform Really Works.” Its subtitle is “Reading First, much maligned, succeeds in teaching kids to read.” The summarized points have been written to reflect “mathematics education”:

1. Secure powerful federal support with a specific goal of solving, not just addressing, the problems in mathematics education. This will be needed to counter the billions spent by the National Science Foundation and private donors who fund reformist math programs.

* Reading First has had a budget of $1 billion per year as part of the NCLB legislation. Reid Lyon, chief reading scientist for The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and Robert Sweet of the House education committee, drafted the Reading First legislation early in 2001. They consciously designed Reading First to do an end run around the deeply entrenched whole-language movement.

Sweet said, “Reading First was created to be a catalyst, to provide a financial incentive for schools finally to start doing the right thing for the millions of kids left behind in reading.”

* Said writer Stern, “You could say that Reading First was a $6 billion
federal bribe to get districts to do what they really should have been doing already.”

2. Watch the National Math Advisory Panel: They have reportedly “set themselves a huge and appropriate task of rigorously evaluating all the research available, identifying facts, opinions, and old wives tales,” according to an e-mail today from Dave Myerson in Mercer Island, WA. This action is highlighted in Stern’s article:

* Gather published, peer-reviewed studies that describe not just how
children learn mathematics but why so many fall behind—and how schools can best keep it from happening.

* Studies by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), a wing of the National Institutes of Health, sponsored reading research at universities, with scientists from cognitive neuroscience, pediatrics, genetics, educational psychology, and child development.

3. Face an instituted money hurdle and name it: Science will collide head-on with ideologies and economic interests within the halls of public education. Interests other than pedagogical are at stake. A shift in teaching methodologies will put tenured jobs and professional development contracts from the $500 billion-plus education industry up for grabs.

4. Face another money hurdle and name it: Progressive classroom instruction is promulgated by the education schools that monopolize teacher training. Education schools do not produce money for universities, so grants to promote ideologies bring money into the coffers.

5. Learn euphemisms: Morphed descriptions of progressive education terminology are designed to make programs sound more reasonable to dubious parents.

6. Design shields against open hostility to science in the education industry: Nonetheless, demand scientific research that supports reform math programs. Fight attempts from reformists who demand “implementation of diverse kinds of scientific research, including teacher research. (Teachers evaluate instructional methods by observing their own classrooms; science be damned.)

7. Use respected sources for surveys: Secure assessment through the National Council on Teacher Quality the percent of elementary education classes that don’t teach the principles of mathematics and scientific math instruction. (For example, 85% of surveyed ed schools showed elementary ed classes don’t teach principles of phonics and scientific reading instruction.)

8. Use winning strategies, with no shame: Consciously plan an end-run around the deeply entrenched whole-math ideology, even with limited power sources.

9. Be prepared to compromise, but on your terms: Reading First legislation abandoned the idea of requiring participating districts to use only scientifically tested reading programs. Instead, districts could also use untested ones, as long as they adhered to the principles of scientific reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

* In a book review by Bill Evers of Class Warfare: Besieged Schools,
Bewildered parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence, written by J. Martin Rochester, this idea of compromise (“a potential middle ground”) is addressed:

* “…traditional education (solid content, drill and practice, teacher-led
classrooms) modified by some of the defensible ideas of progressive education (emphasis on motivation, critical thinking, some projects, some field trips).”

But, Rochester “is realistic in saying that is basis-plus compromise may be difficult to achieve in practice,” writes Evers. That means the idea of basic-plus compromise must be held firmly. (Does that make it not a compromise?)

* Special note on Bill Evers: He has just been nominated by Pres. Bush to be the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.

10. Use new dollars to push for a critical mass: First critical mass will be composed of schools who sign on to the program, in order to ignite a countercultural education movement of teachers, parents, administrators, and education activists.

* By 2006, there were 5,600 schools in 1,700 school districts nationwide who have received Reading First grants.

11. Push for a different critical mass with teacher training. 
*  By 2006, there have been 100,000 K-3 teachers who have received/are receiving professional development in reading science. This has removed these early childhood teachers from the ed schools’ ideological orbit.

12. Set a comprehensive study by an outside evaluator at the end of 5 years: Record those who have succeeded and those who haven’t, including those who have used the program and those who have not. Be clear about those who follow the progressive, ideological methods, and those who enlist for the money but do not show good faith or fidelity to the program.

13. Reprioritize funding due to congressional oversight: More financial help needs to go to places that have really embraced scientific math instruction, are getting strong results, and are truly needy.

14. Name those who refuse opportunities: Openly name education leaders in states and cities who, offered the solution, didn’t grab it.

Published February 15, 2007