Published Online: May 19, 2006
Published in Print: May 24, 2006, as Some Worry About Potential Bias on the National Math Panel

Some Worry About Potential Bias on the National Math Panel

Supporters of a new expert panel on mathematics are confident it will help identify national strategies for improving student learning in that subject—even as critics ask whether its members have the classroom teaching experience, and the objectivity, needed to accomplish that mission.

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel, whose 17 voting members President Bush named last week, includes a number of mathematicians and cognitive and developmental psychologists from across the country.

But the advisory group, which was scheduled to meet for the first time May 22 in Washington, has only one member who currently teaches in a K-12 school, a lack of representation that some observers find puzzling, given the panel’s stated purpose of exploring math teaching and learning from basic math through subjects such as calculus.

Others worry that the panelists’ backgrounds suggest they will favor a particular approach to teaching math—generally speaking, one that stresses the need for drill and practice in basic computation at early grade levels, at the expense of problem solving.

“It does not represent a balanced view of mathematics,” contended Steven Leinwand, a principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research, a private research organization in Washington that studies behavior and social-science issues. He believes that teachers should cultivate students’ skills in understanding broader math concepts, along with basic skills.

The panel needs a stronger voice from “the excellent classroom teachers working with students day in, day out,” Mr. Leinwand added. “We instead have experts on teaching mathematics at the college level.”

‘Cut Through the Noise’

Similar charges of bias dogged the National Reading Panel, formed in 1997, which Bush administration officials have said is a model for the math group. ("White House Suggests Model Used in Reading To Elevate Math Skills," Feb. 15, 2006.)

The reading panel ended up recommending a strong emphasis on teaching phonics, a classroom strategy using a basic-skills approach that critics say the administration tends to favor in the awarding of billions of dollars in federal reading grants. ("Inspector General to Conduct Broad Audits of Reading First," Nov. 9, 2005.)

Others, however, say worries about a biased math panel are overblown. Tom Loveless, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution who was selected for the panel, has written about American students’ weaknesses in arithmetic, and he acknowledges that some skeptics are likely to question his objectivity. But Mr. Loveless, a former 6th grade public school teacher, said he favors building a range of student math skills, and he believes other panelists are similarly broad-minded.

“It’s very clear that our jobs here are not to go in with any kind of an agenda,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to cut through a lot of the noise surrounding math.”

President Bush established the panel as part of a broader, $380 million proposal aimed at improving student performance in math and science and making the United States more competitive internationally. A second piece of that proposal would have the federal government take a stronger role in promoting instructional strategies in that subject that are backed up by research.

For years, disputes over how to teach math, known as the “math wars,” have pitted those who say students need more grounding in basic skills against those who argue that more attention should be paid to building their problem-solving abilities.

Many educators and researchers who once fought those battles have called for détente. While disagreements remain, they say, educators generally agree that students need a balance between knowing number facts and basic procedures and having a broad understanding of math concepts.

Consensus Emerging

Various factions of math educators have long accused the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, an influential, 100,000-member organization in Reston, Va., of placing too little emphasis on the basics.

But NCTM President Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, who was named to the panel, said he is willing to believe the commission could work past disagreements. “I’m certainly going into it with an open mind,” he said. “I have to be positive.”

One panelist and past critic of the NCTM, Harvard University mathematics professor Wilfried Schmid, reiterated his view that students should be “computationally fluent.” But he also believes that advocates from different camps are working more cooperatively today. He noted that he had joined other scholars and business representatives in identifying skills that individuals on different sides of past “math wars” would regard as crucial—from students’ understanding of fractions and algorithms to their proper use of calculators and their ability to do problems in real-world contexts. “We can see some consensus emerging,” he said.

Several panelists and outside observers said they believe far less research is available on effective K-12 math teaching than in subjects such as reading. A major charge of the panel will be to identify the existing research and where more study is needed.

Vern S. Williams, a math teacher at Longfellow Middle School in the 164,000-student Fairfax County, Va., school system, is the only panelist who is now a K-12 teacher.

On a Web site he set up on math topics, Mr. Williams has criticized the NCTM for promoting what he sees as “fuzzy” math standards. In an interview, he suggested the panel could encourage schools to require more demanding math lessons of elementary and middle school students. Many educators today, he said, wrongly assume that children cannot handle that work.

“We’ve been focusing for so long on pedagogy and teaching methods,” Mr. Williams said. “We need to focus on what to teach.”

Vol. 25, Issue 38, Page 8

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National Mathematics Advisory Panel
CHAIRMAN
Larry Faulkner, president, Houston Endowment; president emeritus, University of Texas at Austin.
PANELISTS
Deborah Ball, dean, school of education and college professor, University of Michigan.