Conflict Over How To Teach Math Flares in Bay State

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 16, 2000 4 min read

Massachusetts education officials are calling it simply an effort at clarification. But some educators say the changes being proposed for the state’s 5-year-old mathematics framework represent nothing short of a philosophical shift that propels the state into the middle of a national battle over how the subject should be taught.

The nine members of the advisory panel charged with revising the standards are so upset by the changes now being made by the education department that they resigned en masse last week and asked that their names be kept off the final document.

“Because of our concerns about the process and the quality of the document, we chose to disassociate ourselves from it,” said Carole E. Greenes, a professor of mathematics education at Boston University who chaired the panel.

The state school board is expected to vote on a final draft of the revised math guidelines next week, as is required under the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act. State officials say the modifications will address more specifically the content and skills students are expected to learn; reduce the grade spans covered in the guidelines from groupings of three or four grade levels to just two; and eliminate prescribed teaching strategies.

But critics of the draft say the adjustments are a drastic shift—from a curriculum guide designed to assist teachers in their day-to-day lesson planning to an assessment framework that simply outlines what students will be tested on. They also argue that those changes, which would place a greater emphasis on traditional math skills, could undermine efforts over the past few years to align curricula, professional development, and instructional materials with the guidelines adopted in 1995.

“We’ve invested seven years in this education reform act,” said Chris Martes, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “We believe we need to stay the course and not make changes other than minor adjustments.”

National Debate

David P. Driscoll

But state Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll said that the work of the past few years was not in vain. “All of that training and those textbooks will be [suitable] to use with the new framework,” he said in an interview last week. “This is not at all a turn away from the direction we’ve been going.”

The Massachusetts debate mirrors one taking place nationally over how best to teach math. With the 1989 introduction of standards written by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, curriculum and instruction in many schools began emphasizing a more integrated and hands-on approach over rote computational exercises. Scholars and parents advocating a back-to-basics approach have launched their own campaign in recent years to return to more traditional instructional practices.

State officials in Massachusetts, however, maintain that the revision process being spearheaded by Deputy Commissioner of Education Sandra Stotsky has nothing to do with the so-called math wars. Ms. Stotsky, whose background is in English, was one of nearly 200 scholars who signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Education last November that questioned the quality of the NCTM standards, which underlie 10 math programs endorsed by the department. (“Academics Urge Riley
To Reconsider Math Endorsements,”
Nov. 24, 1999.)

Massachusetts’ updated guidelines will still reflect those standards, while specifying more skills, according to state board Chairman James A. Peyser.

“This is not a choice [between skills and reasoning],” Mr. Peyser said. “We are trying to strike the right balance.”

The board is also hoping to better challenge the state’s top math students, he said, by encouraging districts to offer algebra in the 8th grade—with the aim of getting more students to take calculus in high school—and offering a separate test to assess the skills of those students.

The panel had originally asked that the revisions be postponed several more years because many districts in the state had only begun to implement the frameworks in 1998, when the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the state testing program that includes math, was first administered.

“Many districts didn’t take the frameworks seriously until they were linked to the high-stakes assessment in 1998,” said Anne Collins, who oversaw much of the advisory panel’s work as the statewide math coordinator, a two- year appointment that ended in August. Ms. Collins added that major revisions in the frameworks would require changes to the assessment, given in grades 4, 8, and 10.

In response to the concerns, Commissioner Driscoll said the suggested instructional strategies that were being removed would be available as a supplement to the frameworks.

But that and other concessions do not necessarily satisfy critics like William Kendall, the math coordinator for the Braintree school district.

“They are showing people that this is not an educational process, it’s a political process,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as Conflict Over How To Teach Math Flares in Bay State


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