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Skip Fennell, the Sequel

By Sean Cavanagh — July 21, 2008 2 min read
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This is my second and last entry blog based on a recent interview with Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, who completed his two-year run as president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, earlier this year.

The first entry focused mostly on Fennell’s work in crafting and promoting “Curriculum Focal Points,”. But Fennell also had another prominent task while serving as NCTM president: He was named to a seat on the National Math Advisory Panel, a White House-created group tasked with identifying the best ways to prepare kids to take and succeed in algebra.

Pretty much from the get-go, the math panel was viewed with suspicion in some quarters, including among some of NCTM’s 100,000 members, who feared it would favor an overly rote, drill-oriented approach to math instruction. And when the panel released its final report this year, to no one’s surprise, it drew criticism from those who said it presented a narrow view of how math should be taught.

Adding to that, panelists included people who had bashed NCTM’s positions on math instruction in the past.

It would seem like these factors would put Fennell in an awkward spot.

The public meetings of the panel that I attended were collegial, though there were periodic quarrels that seemed to grow more intense as its members moved toward hammering out their final report (For a taste of those discussions, see the transcripts of the open sessions, which are available online.)

Despite the prominent names on the panel, Fennell said he felt like he was able to contribute and advocate the views of math teachers—who some said were not adequately represented.

Even so, Fennell heard criticism from those who said he did not push hard enough for NCTM’s views, a jab he regards as off-base.

“I have people who think I may have given in to certain things. I don’t quite get or understand that,” he said. It’s easy to criticize the panel’s findings on any given point, he added, “when you have no idea what went into that discussion” of various math topics.

Fennell said he had longtime members of NCTM, who he respects, question why he was on the panel and ask him to quit. “I got some of that,” he said.

But he said he was convinced that not having NCTM represented on the panel—and in other, major math discussions in the future—would seriously diminish the organization’s power in shaping instruction and education policy.

“You’re telling me that one of the largest organizations for math in the country was not [going to be] at the table?” he said of the panel. “Are you kidding me?”

It should be noted that some of the language in the panel’s report clearly reflects NCTM’s point of view. For instance, when the document lists the resources used in describing the “critical foundations” students need in algebra, it mentions not only the curricula in high-performing countries like Japan and Korea, but also NCTM’s Curriculum Focal Points. Other passages in the document strike a conciliatory tone, describing the conflicts that have marked the “math wars” as overblown. Fennell often conveys a similiar message.

“There’s this tremendous need for collaboration” on math issues, Fennell said. Neither NCTM nor its critics “should be excluded from the discussion. I think that’s how some of the misconceptions about the math wars come up.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.