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Sadlier Conference on Advances in Mathematics
By Lauren Shapiro,
Edited by Barbara Lowin
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Part 2 of 2

In 2006, President Bush created a National Mathematics Advisory Panel, comprised of 20 expert panelists and five ex-officio members, to advise him and the secretary of education on the best use of scientifically-based research on the teaching and learning of math, with a specific focus on preparation for and success in learning algebra.

Recently, William H. Sadlier, Inc., the oldest educational publishing company in the United States, took an active role in convening its own National Mathematics Advisory Board to discuss the NMAP report and its effect on math teaching.

In the second half of the conference, mathematics educators held a panel discussion titled: “What’s Happening Today in the Teaching of Mathematics K–8 in Public and Non-Public Classrooms?” Reports were made by representatives from various private and public schools—in most cases describing their difficulties in providing effective mathematics instruction.

After describing the many difficulties—both organizational and technological—the participants indicated that they liked the Sadlier “Progress in Mathematics” program. It starts with kindergarten, which is desirable. Teachers can rely on this program because it’s very similar to the way they themselves were taught; and parents feel comfortable with it. It gives outlets and resources for the ELL classroom. The series provides a genuine experience with problem solving—well beyond the drill exercises.

One panelist mentioned, “In 2008 over 70 percent of P.S. 86 students made one or more years of progress on the New York State math test. So we moved a majority of our kids. We moved our ones to twos, our threes to fours, and we feel it has to do with the use of the “Progress in Mathematics” series.”

Tim S. Kitts, principal at Bay Haven Charter Academy (Panama City, Fla.) stated that “when teachers don’t like math, then the kids don’t do well. At Bay Haven, we own our school. We don’t wait for the state to tell us what to do, and if you don’t want to work, we get rid of you right away. Our decisions are student and business based.”

Kitts continued, “I believe in competition. We have ‘Family Math Night’ for kids to learn math with their parents, and hundreds of parents show up. We have parents trained by our mathematics coach on how to teach enrichment mathematics to the kids. Mathematics is important. Our students compete in mathematics competitions. It’s more important to them than basketball. That’s the way it should be. Everybody loves ‘to read’—I want everybody to love ‘to math.’”

Dr. Kitts further stated, “If we do everything we’re supposed to do, the test will take care of itself. I convened a committee to look at all the math curriculums. We need the standards placed within the text, so my teachers don’t have to waste their time figuring out which standards align with which text. We chose the Sadlier series “Progress in Mathematics” and our grades jumped from 64 percent scoring 3 or higher in 2002 to 98 percent in 2009.”

One teacher attending the panel discussion explained that she has trouble getting her students to grasp even some of the simpler ideas in math, such as the difference between odd and even numbers. Panelist James Milgram responded to this scenario: “That particular example was really depressing. The issue was that we could see that even and odd were taught to kids as: even numbers end in 0, 2, 4, 6, 8; odd numbers end in 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. Naturally, such a “definition” is treated by the students as insanely pointless English vocabulary. There is no underlying mathematical concept that they can use as an organizing principle. What Regina Panasuk and I tried to indicate was that the correct definition (even: a whole number that is a multiple of 2; odd: a whole number that is not a multiple of 2) was not given, but it was ironic, since on the same slide there was a mention of ‘skip counting’ by 3 and 5, i.e., identifying those whole numbers that are multiples of 3 and multiples of 5. So here we had an example of committed teachers, realizing that the system was not working for their students, trying something new with better materials, and getting (superficial but significant) improvements in outcomes, yet not really understanding whole areas.”

The panelists also discussed the effect of math teachers themselves sometimes lacking the expertise in the field of mathematics necessary to help students fully grasp ideas. One panelist explained a situation he had seen: a teacher had a B.A. in education, but had only achieved 11th grade math herself. She was receiving a low salary, had no access to the Internet, and was in essence learning the math along with the students. Can that teacher effectively implement the math curriculum and standards that Milgram recommends?

Milgram replied: “In the situation above, there’s essentially a zero chance that the students will learn much of any use from the teacher. In fact, in most inner-city schools, the typical teacher will have had no math beyond 9th grade (now 8th grade) algebra. They will have majored in elementary education and, depending on the state, will not be required to take any mathematics courses in college (as is the case in California), or will be required to pass a sequence of courses with intimidating titles, but are taught in the education schools by Ed.Ds.

So, what can be done, and what should be done? Is there or should there be a group of mathematicians who are politically active to effect change?

“In the mid 1990’s this is exactly what happened in California,” explained Milgram. “A group of parents and mathematicians at Stanford organized, created a Web site, Palo Alto HOLD, and protested the absurd math program that had just been approved by the state and adopted by the local school district. This was quickly followed by a second group, consisting of parents, high school teachers and university academics, in Southern California that created the Web site www.mathematicallycorrect.com. Pressure was put on the legislature by this group, but at the same time, major businesses throughout California were pressuring the governor to improve K–12 educational outcomes.”

He continued: “The professional mathematics societies—the American Mathematical Society and to a lesser degree the Mathematical Association of America—also became active in protesting the extremely low quality of the mathematics content in K–12. This has been the current battle—to get a reasonable representation of research mathematicians in the group producing the National Math Standards.”#

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