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I was once in a math war skirmish… (Part 1)

October 12, 2008 pm31 10:00 pm

I was teaching at a large Bronx HS back in 1999. All but one of the schools here used the Amsco texts by Dressler (horrible books, imo, but with lots and lots of exercises). I used them as homework resources, and taught lessons independent of the book. That last school used IMP, one of the screaming points for the math wars that were occurring in California.

In the Bronx, our kids were poor, our schools were the most overcrowded in overcrowded New York City (save a couple of new immigrant magnets in Queens). Disruptive reorganizations were shuffling the weakest, most academically vulnerable, and most likely discipline problems from school to school to school. And our scores, lousy for a long time, were falling.

The superintendent decided to pilot two constructivist curricula: IMP, which was already in place in one school, and Math Connections, a new series published in Connecticut (I’ll return to the publisher in the final segment), spanking white covers, books 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3a, and 3b. Schools got to choose which series to pilot; most, including mine, went for Math Connections, as IMP seemed tough on struggling readers, and most of our schools had many struggling readers.

continued below the fold

We ran two freshman classes of MC. Two wasn’t a lot – we ran about 20 freshmen classes altogether. One teacher got training, and the rest of us went about our business. Seemed like a reasonable experiment.

How wrong we were. It was not a pilot to investigate the curriculum. All the data collected around the borough was massaged. They selected which kids to test, used small samples, averaged inappropriately, and in effect, manufactured numbers that said “Ah, Math Connections! That’s the bomb.” The teachers in the pilots, almost all cooperated fully, and almost all were hired by the publisher to be trainers – as MC was adopted for every class in the two-thirds of Bronx high schools that piloted it.

Call the pilot year, 1999-2000, Year 0. Full adoption year, 2000-01, was Year 1. And teachers went wild. The trainers were turned into semi-supervisors, and they were not all the nicest people in the department. A bunch of people got two classes each, and were not allowed to deviate from the text. All the Math Connections classes went to newer teachers (with, generally, poorer classroom management — don’t forget the discipline problems that were getting shuffled into these schools)  The training was not well run (they were modeling discovery learning, and the teachers were worrying about content. There was near total lack of communication). Teachers were ordered to keep the kids in groups full time (that eventually went out the window).

Let’s step back for a second. There was another school, down the block, that had successfully adopted IMP a few years earlier. Why there? 1) A relatively math-able department, 2) a relatively cohesive department, 3) relatively lengthy discussions before adoption, 4) nearly complete buy-in. That was several years earlier. By 1999, math departments had been shaken by the rapid turnover of the late 90s. The discussions were limited, if they occurred at all. And in no school was there buy-in. The experiment’s failure was guaranteed. How that would occur was an open question. And, by the way, the school down the block still has IMP, but a teaching generation later (as turnover remains high) the old buy-in is gone, and there may be grumbling…

Back to my school. The Math Connections problems got worse and worse. Daily group work with teachers with imperfect control was leading to chaos. My friend, McRib, was teaching with me, and he had been assigned MC. But the senior teachers who trained me, and they liked McRib even more, they could not help him since they did not know this program. The trainer (who was really only a teacher) got nasty, yelling at her colleagues, demanding that they do things as she told them.

Even the senior teachers began to be concerned. At first they thought that the newbies were resisting to resist, that they should give it a chance, etc, etc, but they quickly realized that the goal was to transform how math was being taught, and that it would catch up with them in a year or two… At least one was busy plotting a way to teach 3 more years without having an MC class, and then retiring.

At a UFT (NYC teachers’ union) Meet-the-President show in the Bronx in October or November 2000, a math teacher asked Randi Weingarten about IMP and Math Connections, and then math teachers from other schools joined the conversation, and the older women who had trained me said “Jonathan, go talk to those people” and the Bronx HS District Rep came over, and we walked away with a commitment to meet and see what we could do.

Next: Part 2 – organizing for professional conciliation
Then: Part 3 – jd2718 teaches Math Connections!
Finally: Aftermath – how this ended. Conclusions to be drawn.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2008 pm31 10:18 pm 10:18 pm

    I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

  2. Kim permalink
    October 13, 2008 am31 5:24 am 5:24 am

    How can you leave us hanging like that? When do we get the next installment?? Can’t wait!

  3. October 13, 2008 pm31 10:48 pm 10:48 pm

    You make some good points above.
    However, I also think that this can be helpful to you:
    Go to:

    If you get this book and video: PREVENTING Classroom Discipline Problems, [they are in many libraries, so you don’t have to buy them] email me and I can refer you to the sections of the book and the video [that demonstrates the effective vs. the ineffective teacher] that can help you.

    [I also teach an online course on these issues that may be helpful to you at: ]

    If you cannot get the book or video, email me and I will try to help.
    Best regards,


    Howard Seeman, Ph.D.
    Professor Emeritus,
    City Univ. of New York

    Prof. Seeman

  4. pbpcbs permalink
    October 27, 2008 pm31 10:40 pm 10:40 pm

    I was just in touch with NYSED and the current intent is to move the Geometry Regents Exam to 09-June-2008. Apparently this move is open for comment (though I didn’t find any mention of it or the comment period at NYSED) until 5:00pm today, 27-October-2008. Comments should be addressed to David Abrams via

    Note that 09-June is a week before the regularly scheduled beginning of Regents (the Geometry Regents was originally to be on 16-June, the first day of Regents Week), and will held be during class time for most students. Also, of course, the extra day or two of pre-week review will no longer be available.

    Apparently District Superintendents and District Administrators were the only ones officially told of this change. If you don’t like it, write now. I would even write tonight, after the official time is done, since any comments are unlikely to be looked at until tomorrow morning anyway.

  5. pbpcbs permalink
    October 28, 2008 am31 5:58 am 5:58 am

    I just received this from nyshsmath:

    From: “Zero, Edward”
    Date: Mon, 27 Oct 2008 15:23:22 -0400

    Subject: Geometry Regents

    David Abrams just informed the District Superintendents that the Geometry Regents will be on Tuesday, June 16, 2009.

    …as a great comedian used to say: “Never mind.”

  6. October 28, 2008 am31 7:56 am 7:56 am

    Thanks for the heads up. I sent him another e-mail before the deadline.

    I also found that I had missed switching to the new AMTNYS listserves, and went back and found the discussion I had missed. Most of my points had already been made by others, but I’m glad to have snuck something in.


  7. November 25, 2008 am30 1:10 am 1:10 am


    do what i say, not what i do. — is that about it?


  1. Mac won’t restart « JD2718
  2. I was once in a math war skirmish… (Part 2) « JD2718
  3. I was once in a math war skirmish… Part 3: teaching Math Connections « JD2718
  4. What makes a constructivist censor? « JD2718
  5. I was once in a math war skirmish… Aftermath… We win… and lose « JD2718
  6. For just a second, my knees buckled… « JD2718
  7. Running for UFT High School VP – how I started | JD2718

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