Equity & Diversity

Special-Interest Groups Confront National Math Panel

By Sean Cavanagh — July 11, 2006 6 min read
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A national panel reviewing teaching and learning in mathematics heard from advocates for minority students and non-native English-speakers at a recent public forum here, as well as from a women’s professional organization that objected to decades-old research published by the panel’s vice chairwoman.

The White House-appointed National Mathematics Advisory Panel listened to the concerns of a cross section of speakers, including teachers, academic researchers, and even designers of classroom products, at its second meeting, held June 28-29 on the campus of the University of North Carolina at 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 beseeched the panel to examine available research on the disadvantages many minority children face in math classes, and what can be done to help them.

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

Other speakers included Miriam Leiva, the president of TODOS: Mathematics for All, a nationwide network of educators that supports improved learning in that subject among minority students, particularly Latinos. She urged the panel to consider supporting a broad range of strategies to help those populations.

Another organization represented at the meeting, meanwhile, took aim at 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, because of three scholarly articles she wrote during the 1980s.

The articles examined whether high-performing male students have innate advantages over top-tier females in certain types of math learning. The first paper, “Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability: Fact or Artifact,” appeared in the journal Science in 1980, as did a second piece in 1983. The third was published in Behavioral and Brain Science in 1988.

The petition from the Fairfax, Va.-based association said the articles gave the impression that “intrinsic gender differences favor males at the highest levels of mathematics.” The association has 4,100 members, most of whom are college faculty.

“This hypothesis has already done serious damage,” a member of the women’s group, Anne Catlla, told the panel at its public hearing. “We hope the National Mathematics Panel will debunk myths” about gender disparity, she added.

Revisiting Research

But Ms. Benbow, a widely published scholar, said she stood by her past research. She also contended that her work on how gifted girls and boys learn math has benefited students of both sexes.

Camillia Persson Benbow

“They’re taking a very myopic view of my work, and not looking at what I’ve done over the last 25 years,” said Ms. Benbow, a professor of educational psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “I’ve spent my life [studying] talent in math and science in males and females. I think that counts for a lot.”

The panelist said she was surprised to learn of the objections from the women’s association, because she had not heard such critiques “in over 20 years.”

A number of Ms. Benbow’s fellow panelists, meanwhile, also said they believed the criticism of her was misguided. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, said the objections amounted to a “political argument, not a scientific one.”

“They’re trying to remove her because they don’t like her conclusions. That doesn’t seem right to me,” Ms. Ball said after one session. “They should be trying to help us draw conclusions about math. … Having people snipe at the panelists does not help things.”

Another panel member, Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, agreed.

“I see an interest on her part in dealing with the needs of all children in math,” he said of Ms. Benbow, “regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity.”

President Bush established the advisory panel through an executive order in April to identify research and effective strategies for teaching and learning in math. The White House has asked the panel to focus, in particular, on the lessons necessary to prepare students for algebra, a course that is widely regarded as crucial to achieving success in college. (“Administration Hopes to Begin Grant Cycle at Math Panel’s Midpoint,” June 7, 2006.)

Over the course of its two-day meeting here, the 17-member panel conducted much of its work in subgroups studying four different areas of math: conceptual knowledge and skills; learning processes of students with different abilities; instructional practices; and professional development.

The U.S. Department of Education closed those subgroup meetings to the public, citing a provision in federal law pertaining to smaller-group sessions aimed at providing advice for the larger panel. The full panel reconvened in the open at various points to discuss their progress.

The panel must submit an interim report to the White House by next Jan. 31 and a final document by Feb. 28, 2008. Bush administration officials have said they hope to use the interim report to guide Math Now, a $250 million plan—included in the president’s fiscal 2007 budget proposal—to award grants for improved elementary and middle school math instruction.

A House appropriations subcommittee, however, ignored Math Now in a budget package approved last month. At the North Carolina meeting, the math panel’s chairman, Larry R. Faulkner, told his colleagues that administration officials had asked to have an interim report ready by January regardless of the fate of Math Now.

Our timetable is not affected,” said Mr. Faulkner, the former president of the University of Texas at Austin.

A Narrow Focus?

A central task for the panel is to identify strategies for math teaching and learning that research has proven to be successful. Mr. Faulkner said the panel was likely to hire a private contractor to help with “filtering the literature” and organizing it by subject.

The panelists have spoken often, and with frustration, about the paucity of available research on what works in math instruction. Several members have said their challenge will be to identify clearly what they know about math, and what they don’t, given those limited resources.

Another oft-cited worry is how to ensure that the panel’s report is original, and that it will have an influence in schools and among the public at large. A number of panelists have pointed to an impressive list of federally commissioned studies on math, released over the past two decades, that were highly touted at the time but did little to shape teaching and learning.

“I’m really concerned that we address the issue early on of how this report differs from—I’m not going to name them all,” Ms. Ball said. “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 blueprint for the math effort. That expert group had rejected the impulse to take on every issue in reading, the math panelist noted.

“There was a focus that was rare in that [reading] document,” Mr. Gersten told other members of the math panel. “There were many things that were excluded.” That selectivity, he added, “really needs to be our charge.”

The reading panel, however, drew criticism for limiting the kinds of research about instruction it considered.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Special-Interest Groups Confront National Math Panel


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