Education Reporter's Notebook

Business, Field of Math Divided, Consultant Says

By Sean Cavanagh — May 09, 2006 4 min read
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Several years ago, a nonfiction book seeking to explain the eternal communication divide between the sexes, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, notched a spot on the best-seller list, and a place in the popular lexicon along with it.

Education consultant Linda P. Rosen made playful reference to that work to describe what she sees as a persistent divide between corporate America and math teachers in their thinking about how to improve schools in her speech, “Is the Business Community From Mars?,” at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ annual meeting, held here April 26-28.

Over the past year, business leaders have been urgently calling for the improvement of math and science education in the United States in order to cultivate a workforce for highly skilled jobs and fend off foreign competition. Ms. Rosen attempted to explain the business community’s thinking about where schools need to improve—and to urge math teachers to work with the private sector, rather than rejecting its ideas outright.

Ms. Rosen has experience in both camps. During her career, she has served not only as the executive director of the NCTM, based in Reston, Va., but also as the vice president for education at the National Alliance of Business, in Washington. In addition, she was the senior math and science adviser to former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

The rift between the K-12 and corporate communities was clear during Ms. Rosen’s presentation, however, when several audience members told her they were openly skeptical of business leaders’ ideas for improving education.

One teacher, for instance, speculated that corporate leaders are too quick to pin U.S. job losses on schools for not producing talent—when, in fact, some of those companies are sending jobs abroad for cheap labor. Another teacher said such executives, while calling for more rigor in math curricula, have little concept of the vast everyday demands already placed on teachers, in such areas as meting out discipline and helping students who are well below grade level.

Other teachers were more encouraging about partnering with the business community, noted Ms. Rosen, who ended up e-mailing copies of her presentation to many of the attendees. “We all really want the same goal,” she later said.

Ms. Rosen, who is based in Bethesda, Md., also said math teachers need to recognize the corporate world’s powerful influence among the elected officials who shape K-12 policy. Teachers would be wise to take part in those discussions and not “close the curtain” on them, she said. “We need to get serious as a community,” she said, “in figuring out how we can inform those movers and shakers who are making policies.”

A number of sessions at the NCTM gathering focused on the potential for intensive teacher academies, staged over the summer, to improve the content knowledge of the existing corps of math instructors.

More information on the academy is also available.

One such effort, the Missouri Elementary Mathematics Leadership Academy, brought 86 elementary teachers from across that state together last summer for in-depth lessons on numbers and operations. Unlike some professional-development activities, the three-week academy used lessons devised primarily by teachers themselves, rather than by college faculty members, said Terry Goodman, a mathematics professor at Central Missouri State University, in Warrensburg, Mo., who co-directed the academy.

Nearly all the teachers who took part last year will return this summer. About two-thirds of participating teachers showed significant progress in their math skills on a written exam given at the end of the 2005 academy, which was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Three weeks is a fairly intensive summer experience for many teachers,” Mr. Goodman said, “but we feel that’s what it takes.”

Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, a professor of education at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., was officially named the president of the NCTM and will serve a two-year term. He takes over from Cathy L. Seeley, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin.

The plot of the TV drama “Numb3rs,” now in its second season, focuses on an FBI agent who calls on his math-whiz brother to help him solve crimes. Not surprisingly, it has proved enormously popular among another family of math whizzes: the NCTM’s 100,000 members.

The “Numb3rs” math lessons can be viewed online.

This year, NCTM and Texas Instruments have seized on the show’s appeal to produce a tool for math teachers to use in conjunction with its Friday-night episodes as a basis for in-class lessons and activities.

Officials at CBS have been providing advance details on the math used in upcoming shows to a team of NCTM classroom teachers and mathematicians, who craft and refine lessons based on those concepts. The math lessons, covering topics such as geometric progressions and functions, are posted online and are being downloaded by about 6,000 teachers a week, NCTM spokeswoman Gay Dillin said.

Cast members David Krumholtz (who plays the lead math whiz) and Navi Rawat (who plays one of his colleagues) showed up for the second straight year at the NCTM meeting, at a session that drew at least 1,200 teachers, Ms. Dillin estimated.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week


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