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Marain and Steen, a comment

September 18, 2007 pm30 3:28 pm

This week retired math supervisor Dave Marain published a two part interview (1 2) with professor Lynn Arthur Steen. Marain tossed mostly slow pitches, but I don’t blame him for that, I might have done the same thing. However, the next to last question is about the Math Wars, and the one before that about the 1989 NCTM Standards, and Steen’s answers seemed off, and made me think. Here’s the bits I reacted to (the entire text is questions 17 and 18, on Dave’s site):

    17. [I]f you could go back in time to the development of the original NCTM standards, what are some changes you would make…?[D]ifferent readers read the Standards differently. I read them as clarion call for eliminating the tradition, most evident in mathematics, to select and educate only the most able students and to provide others, disproportionately poor and minority, with only the illusion of education. For the first time a powerful national voice said that all students deserve a mathematics education.
    If I were able to go back and make any change, I would highlight that central message more, and make clear that the suggested particulars were to be worked out through traditional American strategies of local innovation. The NCTM [should have kept] the nation’s attention on the central goal of providing all students with a meaningful mathematics education.

I think this is history rewritten. That goal is interesting, reasonable, just. And these were not called “Standards for Equity” or any such thing. I can imagine a much different discussion, and not necessarily a war, if the Standards said that math was being taught well, or at least ok, to our stronger students, but that our weaker students weren’t being taught enough, well enough, and that some curricular and pedagogical compromises needed to be made so that more students could go further…. But you read that here, not in the Standards.

There is a second, larger problem (at least for me). Teachers voice is lost. The Math Wars were math professors (and math savvy parents) vs math ed professors (and publishers and administrators). Teachers more or less kept their heads down and tried to find middle ground, or tried to follow mandates that just didn’t seem right.

And now? Steen mentions face-to-face discussions between the protagonists, but teachers are not part of that.  The ‘protagonists’ should be talking to teachers, asking teachers. Instead, one group out fo the classroom is negotiating with another group from out of the classroom. That they are willing to compromise means that they will be less wrong than 20 years ago. That they are not listening to teachers means they won’t get it right, either.

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