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Math Educators Seek To Build Coalitions To Translate Reform Ideas Into Practice

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By Robert Rothman

A year after issuing highly publicized calls for an overhaul of mathematics instruction, two of the country's leading math-education groups are engaged in coalition-building and other long-term efforts designed to ensure that their ideas are put into practice.

During the past few months, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has held a series of conferences to create a cadre of some 1,000 educators, business and political leaders, and journalists to spread the reform message to local groups.

At the same time, the Mathematical Sciences Education Board, a branch of the National Research Council, has helped form in half the states coalitions of the educators, business leaders, and policymakers charged with leading reform efforts in their states.

The projects are aimed, officials of both organizations said, at building a base of support for the proposals among those who will be responsible for implementing them. Previous efforts to change math curricula, such as the movement known as the New Math of the 1960's, lacked such a base, they maintained.

"We can have a document, and we can have leadership," said Dan Dolan, state supervisor of mathematics in the Montana Office of Public Instruction. "What we've got to have are people involved."

Added Robert J. Kansky, project director for the MSEB: "The national recommendations are essentially useless unless they get to the states. They hold the key to reform."

Officials from both groups acknowledge that changing the way math is taught will take years to accomplish and will involve changes in textbooks, testing, and teacher preparation, as well as curriculum.

"The whole revolution in math is going to take a decade," said Shirley M. Frye, president of the NCTM "We say, 'Be patient with yourself and plan."'

"To make substantial changes," she continued, "has got to involve a lot of people. [That way,] when you bring it, it is institutionalized. It will not last only as long as the people in charge are there."

The two reports issued last year--the NCTM's "Curriculum and Evaluation Standards" and the NRC's "Everybody Counts"--represent what most experts consider a consensus among math educators on changes needed in instruction in the subject.

Among other recommendations, the reports urged greater use of calculators and computers; less emphasis on rote computation skills and more on problem-solving abilities; greater attention to data analysis and probability; and a focus on teaching students to communicate mathematically.

In addition to receiving strong endorsements from mathematicians and math educators, noted Mr. Dolan, the reports also reflect what business leaders had been urging.

"People from business and industry realized that the math taught in grades K-12 is not the math used in the real world," he said. "Rote drill is not the math of the real world. What's needed is problem-solving, people working together, analysis of data, statistics."

The recommendations have already made a strong impact on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which relied on the NCTM standards in creating objectives for its 1990 test, the first to provide state-by-state comparisons of student achievement.

The math groups also plan to work with the National Governors' Association in meeting the education goals outlined by the governors and President Bush, according to Mr. Kansky. The first goal the executives proposed was to make U.S. students first in the world in math and science achievement by the year 2000.

"To do what the governors want to do, eventually you must talk about curriculum," Mr. Kansky said. "Math is organized well enough to address the problem."

In addition to the efforts at the national level, the groups also created the network-building projects to spur changes in classrooms.

In the NCTM's project, called "Leading Mathematics Education into the 21st Century," officials from the national organization have outlined the case for math-education reform to about 1,000 local officials, who in turn are expected to speak on the issue to teachers, parents, Rotary Clubs, and other local groups.

The participants were provided with a set of materials, including the two reform reports and blackline masters for overhead projections, to ensure that the presentations they make are fairly consistent. In addition, the NCTM plans to serve as a "wellspring of materials they can tap," according to Ms. Frye.

The goal of the project, she said, is to create a "multiplier effect."

"Now that we have more than 1,000 leaders, those people have materials to begin developing a network in their own states," she said.

To coordinate the local efforts, said Mr. Dolan, the project's director, state math coordinators have created an electronic bulletin board to keep in contact and to share information about activities in their states. In addition, he said, the national officials may hold a national conference to allow participants in the local networks to meet and share ideas.

Operating on a parallel track, the MSEB project is aimed at creating coalitions of state leaders who can influence public policy.

Under the project, which was launched with a grant from the Exxon Education Foundation, 26 states are forming such coalitions and developing plans for improving math education in their states. This summer, these states are expected to begin implementing their plans.

The national group is also seeking funding for planning grants for the other 24 states and the District of Columbia, Mr. Kansky said.

"We hope by November of this year to be operational in all states," he said.

The coalitions vary from state to state, but several include high-level policymakers. For example, Mr. Kansky noted, Montana's includes the governor, the state superintendent of public instruction, the chairman of the board of regents for higher education, the president of the PTA, and the chief executive officers of the telecommunications firm US West and a local television station.

The state coalitions' plans will also depend on local conditions and needs, Mr. Kansky added. They could include, for example, goals for increasing the number of students who take higher-level coursework or the number of math teachers who are members of minority groups, he suggested.

The national group has created an electronic bulletin board to keep in contact with the state coalitions, Mr. Kansky said, but he added that the MSEB plans to "wean the groups away from us" within the next five years to enable them to enact the long-range reforms on their own.

"To put in place the big ideas we are proposing, it is not unreasonable to talk about two decades," he maintained. "We are asking teachers to change completely the way they think about teaching, and the way they are teaching. We're trying to change deep-seated opinions."

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