Mathematics Reporter's Notebook

Mathematics Group Focuses on Diversity At Annual Meeting

By Sean Cavanagh & Karen Diegmueller — April 19, 2005 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: This item misspelled the name of one of the cast members in the television series “NUMB3RS” . She is Navi Rawat.

Teaching math to a diverse student body was the overarching theme of this year’s meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Numerous sessions were offered on how to reach African-American children, Latino children, special education students, and other populations.

The gathering, held here April 6-9, also provided a forum for the NCTM’s task force on closing the student-achievement gap to present its final recommendations.

“We want new strategies. The old strategies aren’t working,” said task force member Julian Weissglass of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The task force offered four principal recommendations for the council to pursue: implement a long-term leadership plan to increase the capacity and commitment of leaders to address the issues; appoint a panel of experts to help design a research agenda; expand the policies and political action aimed at eliminating the gap; and support an increase in professional development on the achievement gap.

Many academic indicators, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show most minority students in the United States consistently lagging behind their white peers in math skills.

NCTM President Cathy Seeley, who called the achievement gap the “underlying anchor of all we do,” said the council was already acting on some of those issues, but others would have to be picked up piecemeal because of the expense. “Be patient, persistent, and aggressive with us,” she said, “to make sure we keep on track.”

A second task force—this one on the preparation of math teachers—also shared its final recommendations at the annual conference.

They focus on attracting bright men and women to the profession, training them well, distributing them equitably in schools, and keeping them in the classroom.

Among the more controversial suggestions, the task force is asking the NCTM to consider backing differentiated pay for math teachers, in the hope of luring more to the field.

Unless significant measures are taken, the situation is likely to worsen, task force members said.

Suzanne Mitchell, the chairwoman of the task force, cited the paucity of new math teachers in her state, Arkansas. Colleges and universities there turned out 50 secondary math teachers in 1994. By 2001, the number had dropped to 40.

It could be worse. In the past six years, said Ms. Mitchell, who teaches math to aspiring teachers at Arkansas State University, Arkansas has produced just one physics teacher.

Meanwhile, teachers of math at the middle school level in six states studied rely heavily on textbooks, according to preliminary findings from researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The longitudinal study followed 4,200 students and their teachers in 11 schools in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, and Washington state during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years. Teachers in five of the schools worked out of texts financed by the National Science Foundation, such as Connected Math; in the other six schools, teachers used commercially developed textbooks.

Nearly three-quarters of the teachers employed textbooks in their lessons at least 75 percent of the time, while only 3 percent used them less than a quarter of the time, said researcher Robert E. Reys.

Teachers with the commercial texts relied most often on them to teach numbers and operations. In contrast, those using the NSF-sponsored texts were more likely to devote the most time with them to algebra. Regardless of the textbook, the teachers were most likely to omit data analysis and probability.

Ever wonder how math teachers spend their Friday nights? Not just solving differential equations, judging from one wildly popular session.

Teachers here waited in line for up to 90 minutes to get into a question-and-answer session with cast members and crew from the math-themed CBS television drama “Num3ers,” and greeted them with cheers like the most devoted groupies.

David Krumholtz, left, plays a math genius who helps his brother , Rob Morrow, an FBI agent, solve cases in the TV show "NUMB3RS." Teachers packed a conference session featuring cast and crew members from the CBS series.

“I didn’t think that the majority of our constituency would be math teachers,” said Navi Rowat, an actress on the show, upon seeing the swollen crowd waiting for the session. “I guess I was wrong.”

“Numb3rs,” which airs Fridays, is about an FBI agent who recruits his math-genius brother, played by David Krumholtz, to help him solve crimes. Mr. Krumholtz and Ms. Rowat, both of whom attended the session, admitted having little taste or talent for math while in school, but that did little to lessen the zeal of math instructors. The teachers watched a screening of an upcoming episode, in which Mr. Krumholtz’s character uses various formulas to help catch a sniper.

“It’s quite wonderful how something you’ve given up on kind of creeps back in your life,” Mr. Krumholtz said at one point, of his mathematical rebirth.

Several of the instructors, during the Q&A session, vowed to lobby CBS to renew the show for another season. Any TV show that boosts the public’s appreciation for math, they said, deserves their support. A few of the teachers, however, acknowledged they’ve got a long way to go.

“When you go to a party or something,” one asked the cast, “do people ever say, ‘Oh my God! Mathematics!’ And run away from you?”

Standing in line apparently is an action that many of the 14,000 attendees had to get used to if they wanted to get into some of the more popular sessions here.

One workshop, “Developing Mathematical Problem Solving and Reasoning Through Games,” scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m., was filled to capacity by 7:45. Another, later the same day, was under way 10 minutes before its starting time because it was already full.

Volunteers urged teachers to come early and stand in line if they wanted to get into their sessions of choice. Or they tried to whip up interest in others that were being held in larger rooms.

“I was disappointed,” said Janice Minyard, a high school math teacher in Tulare, Calif., after being shut out of her second session of the day, “From Assessment to Differentiation: Meeting the Needs of All Learners.”

“This is what my principal sent me to look into,” she said.

Gay Dillin, a spokeswoman for the math teachers’ council, said conference organizers try to gauge the degree of interest in a session and match it to room size, but “it’s very difficult to judge which of these sessions is going to be popular.”

At the NCTM’s regional get-togethers, organizers often will ask a presenter to conduct a second session if the first is filled, but that flexibility is not possible at the main gathering, she said. A couple of years ago, the council initiated “gallery workshops” that enable as many as 100 more members to attend but not take part.

Professional conferences are arguably the Shangri-La for promotional giveaways, and the NCTM’s meeting was no exception. One particularly popular freebie T-shirt given to teachers played on the United States’ sorry performance on the recent Program for International Assessment—with a promise to get even.

The front of the shirt handed out by Tom Synder Productions, which is owned by the publishing company Scholastic, listed the 10 top-scoring countries on the mathematical-literacy section of the 2003 PISA, with Finland at the top.

The United States, which finished 24th out of 29 industrialized nations on that section of the exam, was rightly absent from the list, and a map of North America, shrouded in gray tones, appears beneath the U.S.-less list. The back side of the T-shirt, however, vows to change that. “Kick Finland’s +-÷x !!” it reads, in bright orange and yellow tones. Below that declaration, it says, “US #1 in math by 2007.”

John Carroll, an exhibitor for the Watertown, Mass.-based Tom Snyder Productions, said the company made 900 of the shirts available at the conference, which were quickly scooped up. “It started its own underground movement,” he quipped.

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