Equity & Diversity

Math Panel Urged to Identify Ways to Improve Instruction for Minorities

By Sean Cavanagh — June 30, 2006 4 min read

Members of a national panel charged with identifying ways to improve how mathematics is taught were urged to examine strategies for engaging and raising the performance of minorities and non-native English speakers in that subject, at a public forum held here yesterday.

The White House-appointed panel listened to statements from a diverse cross-section of speakers, including teachers, academic researchers, designers of commercial classroom products, and advocates from interest groups, on the second day of its meeting on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

One of the 27 speakers was Karen S. Norwood, the president of the Benjamin Banneker Association, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the performance of black students in math. She urged the panel to examine available research on the disadvantages many minority students face in math classes, and what could be done to help them.

Many black students “have been tracked into lower level or special-education classes at a very early age,” Ms. Norwood said, after addressing the panel. “Once they get in that track, they can’t get out.”

A similar message was conveyed by Miriam Leiva, the president of TODOS: Mathematics for All. Her organization, a national network of educators, supports improvements in how math is taught to members of minority groups, particularly Latinos. She asked the panel to advocate a broad set of classroom strategies in reaching those students.

Another speaker, representing a different student population, took issue with the panel’s composition rather than its mission. The Association for Women in Mathematics has launched a petition asking for the removal of the panel’s vice-chairwoman, Camilla Persson Benbow, based on the group’s objections to three scholarly articles she wrote during the 1980s. Those articles examined whether high-performing male students have innate advantages over top-tier females in certain types of math learning.

A member of the women’s association, Anne Catlla, told the panel that the publicity generated by Ms. Benbow’s articles after their publication led to a “media field day” with stories that perpetuated the idea that boys might be more inherently talented in math than girls.

“This hypothesis has already done serious damage,” Ms. Catlla told the panelists. “We hope the National Mathematics Panel will debunk myths” about gender disparity, she added.

Neither Ms. Benbow nor fellow panelists responded to those comments.

But Ms. Benbow, a professor of educational psychology at Vanderbilt University, has previously defended her writings as grounded in solid research, and said the women’s group has ignored the broader scope of her scholarly work. Several other panelists also have said the criticism of Ms. Benbow is unwarranted, and have rejected the suggestion that she should resign or be removed.

Ms. Benbow “is one of the foremost authorities on math research in the United States,” the panel’s chairman, Larry R. Faulkner, said in an interview after the public comments. “I don’t see that [the complaint is] actually relevant at all to the work of the panel.”

Top Priority

President Bush in April signed an executive order establishing the panel, charging it with identifying best practices for teaching and learning in math, and in particular, strategies for preparing students for algebra.

Over the course of its two-day meeting, the 17-member panel conducted much of its work in sub-groups studying four different areas of math: conceptual knowledge and skills; learning processes of students with different abilities; instructional practices; and professional development. Those sub-group meetings were closed to the public, though the panelists reconvened in public at various points to discuss their progress.

A central part of the panel’s mission is to examine available scholarly research about different aspects of math teaching and learning, identifying classroom strategies that are grounded in research, and presumably, those that are not. At the North Carolina meeting, Mr. Faulkner said the panel was likely to hire a private contractor to help its members sort through various scholarly articles and research on topics from professional development to curriculum.

The panelists have spoken often, with frustration, about the overall lack of available research on what works in math instruction. During their two-day meeting, several panelists said they were still trying to understand how they could accomplish their mission given the gaps in the math research base.

‘Our Charge’

Another concern voiced by the panelists is how they will ensure that their recommendations have an influence on the education community, and the public at large. Some of the group’s members have pointed to the long list of federally commissioned studies on math released over the past two decades—which were highly touted at the time—but have not shaped instruction on a broad scale.

“I’m really concerned that we [should] address the issue, early on, of how this report differs from [others]—I’m not going to name them all,” Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a panelist and the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, told the panel. “A lot of what we’re saying … sounds a lot like what’s already been done—without a lot of impact, I might add.”

Russell M. Gersten, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Oregon in Eugene, saw an important model in the report produced in 2000 by the National Reading Panel, a document that the Bush administration has cited as a model for the math effort. The report proved influential partly because it focused on specific aspects of reading instruction, rather than attempting to address every single issue of instruction.

“There was a focus that was rare in that document,” he told other panelists. “There were many things that were excluded.”

That selectivity, he added, “really needs to be our charge.”

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