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June 2001 letter about the Math Wars

November 23, 2008 pm30 10:06 pm

I wrote this to my District Rep in preparation for our Professional Reconciliation hearing in June 2001. It was the most I’d thought about teaching math to that point; I was just completing my 4th year. And I don’t know that I love everything I wrote. But I’ll stand by it as in the main correct, and an honest, thoughtful attempt to find a place for teachers…

Those of you who have read posts here over the last 2½ years will recognize some similar thoughts, but in formation. You may even recognize early elements of my Outlook on Teaching Mathematics.

June 14, 2001


There are some things I didn’t say and we didn’t really cover in those math meetings. First, like it or not, battles similar to ours are being fought throughout the country. Second, when we got to what program(s) we want, we were fairly vague.

(Personal note here: I will be teaching Math Connections 3 next year. I will “fix” lots of stuff along the way. I have a feeling that that is what has happened in many places where it seems to be working. But this requires a certain skill/experience/mathematical ability level, requires hands-off or cooperative supervision, and wouldn’t it be better to start with a better curriculum in the first place??)

Let’s start with the “Math Wars.” It makes me damn nervous to be on the same side as what I would call right-wing kooks. It started as a California thing: “Back to basics” vs. “Constructivists” along roughly the same fault lines as the anti-Bilingual, and the anti-Affirmative Action fights there. There are big differences among these, but in each case the Education or Liberal or whatever establishment, in my opinion, took something that was decent, ran way way too far with it (to the point of abuse), and gave the right wing an easy target.

(much more beneath the fold)

I like to think about us as taking the reasonable center against the Ed nuts on one side, but then holding it against the back to basics cretins who will certainly be emboldened enough to start making real noise in the next few years. [Another teacher] has found the biggest back-to-basics site: and their opponents are at They both make noise, they both point fingers at each other and say “you are extreme; we are reasonable” Anyhow, by being aware of the other extreme, we may pre-empt some of what the Supe might say.

If you look at what District 2 posted ([another teacher] e-mailed it to me) about the opponents of their curriculum, you may get a good clue to what could be argued against us. And, to be perfectly honest, unless we have some specifics, those sorts of charges could easily stick.

Next, here are some of what I believe would be elements of a strong mathematics curriculum.

#1 – Problem Solving.

We should be doing off topic mathematical problem solving with our kids, on a semi-regular basis. We should be teaching the skills, strategies, techniques, thought processes that all go along with being confronted with something that looks different from what we’ve seen before. Maybe take a class period once a month? Maybe every other week? But IMP does this work daily, and I doubt back-to-basics programs do more than routine mixture, train and work problems. We have the reasonable center.

#2 – Calculator Use

Calculators should assist in learning, not replace it. Book 1 of Math Connections (MC) opens with training kids to use the graphing calculator to find mean, median, and standard deviation, which they seem to learn to do accurately, but with no sense of what they are doing or what it means. On the other hand, I have seen graphing calculators well-used, after kids can sketch a sinusoidal curve, to demonstrate what happens as elements of f(q) = Asin(kq+c) are altered. Not anti-technology, but for proper use to maximize learning, while MC seems to use the calculator for its own sake.

There is a second area of concern with the calculator: What do you do with kids who reach high school and can’t subtract if there is a carry? Push him a calculator so he can solve an equation? Remediate the skill gap? Right now we do the former. I think we should do both (having a supplementary skills class, or a resource room kind of situation for the skills might help?)

#3 – Reading

At the right level (knock against IMP), with embedded literacy strategies (knock against MC), with literacy training for teachers. Especially in this borough, it behooves us to include work to improve reading everywhere we can, however, we are talking about mathematics, and the precision and accuracy of mathematical language should not be compromised in the process. The back to basics folks mock the idea of any writing or reading in math, while IMP and MC have far too much reading, and far too little emphasis on mathematically accurate language. Find the reasonable center.

A couple of weeks ago I was involved in a discussion. A girl posted a question on-line; she wanted to know what careers might use algebra (this was for a class assignment). The non-teachers who read this went berserk. They were utterly and unalterably opposed to this assignment for a variety of reasons, starting with opposition to any reading or writing in math class, and ending with opposition to doing anything they didn’t do when they took algebra (60’s and 70’s)

#4 – Discovery

A few times in each course I teach, I trot out rulers or scissors and ask the kids to cut, or measure, or estimate, tabulate their results, and see if they can figure anything out. The next day I review their findings, formalize them mathematically, and move on. Example A: measure the sides of a bunch of right triangles, examine their products, sums, squares, etc, and try to find where the pattern occurs. Example B: Pull out calculators, let them fill in table with first 20 square roots, and find what + what = which. I teach why 1.414… + 1.414… does not equal 2.000 the next day…. Example C: give them a bunch of 12” or 30 cm rulers, and ask them to construct triangles from them with varying sides. Let them convince themselves that the longest side can’t be longer than the sum of the shorter sides. And so on.

This Discovery Based Learning is great stuff, and I am glad that I have found some places to apply it. “Constructivism,” (MC and IMP both claim to be “constructivist”) take this nice idea and essentially say, this works well for these five lessons, let’s use these principles to teach the whole course. There is no, or greatly reduced, drill and practice. The “next day” where the teacher teaches is marginalized. (at the other extreme, back to basics folks mock any activity which doesn’t involve the teacher at the board)

#5 – Connections

The NCTM and probably most of us like linking parts of our curricula to real world situations, or connect up to ideas from other subjects, or even just link the graph to geometry, or the function to arithmetic. But IMP and MC have taken this idea of connecting math to such an extreme that every concept is placed in context, and some of those contexts are mathematically weak, or even misleading. It is good when our students understand how the concepts they are learning fit into the real world, but in order to do that we actually have to teach the math, and the real world is insufficiently abstract for many of our concepts.

Further, we introduce some connections with some classes, others with others. It is good if we know lots of ways that the notion of slope, for example, can be translated into a real world analog (I love doing position vs. time graphs, but not with every class). Some classes need more connections, some less. An ESL class might need extra to help with words, rather than concepts. But these books are one size fits all.

#5 – Drill and Practice

As you know from the “supplementing” stories, these new curricula come with vastly insufficient quantities of drill and practice. A back to basics approach might include drill to the exclusion of the more engaging parts of the curriculum. Again, drill is essential, but there is no need for it to dominate our subject, happy medium, etc. etc. On the other hand, in District 2 they say that their teachers supplement TERC and CMP and ARISE with drill and practice as necessary. I am not sure, without specifics, we should believe them. Further, we have the supplementing story from the Bronx (Lehman?)

#6 – Remediation

Students who move ahead grade levels while lacking mathematical (including arithmetic) skills, should have them remediated. However, neither pure “teaching for learning” nor “skills drills” but rather some sort of blend is most likely necessary. It is not acceptable to graduate students with big arithmetic gaps. There is no way to learn facts without drilling. But if a student demonstrates an incapability of learning through drill alone, variation in instruction, not pure repetition, is likely the best course.

#7 – Teaching for Understanding

This is probably the only thing these books really get right at all. It should be our obligation as educators to at least attempt to teach the students so they can understand what they are doing, not just rote formula and fact memorization (but see #5, still have to memorize those facts!) In theory, NY State style developmental mathematics lessons should be doing this, but we know that they often do not. Also note that at least Connections lets the graphing calculator interfere with understanding.

#8 – Good Process; Correct Answer

We want both. The Constructivists pay only lip service to the latter, the Luddites do the same to the former. We want a balanced approach that insists on correct answers, but that doesn’t simply begin and end with correct answers.

#9 – Mathematical Authority

In the classroom, ultimate mathematical authority rests with the teacher. We’d like the kids to figure lots of stuff out, but Connections training reduces the teacher to the level of a bright student.

Sorry about running on and on, but I hope at least some of this is interesting. And I’m more than willing to flush any of this out.


Our meeting is later today, but I have thought of a few additional details.

We’ve been concerned about finding data to back our contentions. I think the data simply does not exist. Both sides argue over a few particular cases that purport to show improvement or drops in achievement. Let them argue. In each case the improvement or drops are small, if they exist at all.

What a waste. There are ways to spend money to get results; Instead, why are we spending money on IMP and MC, which at best cause a small increase in achievement? (and there are studies that dispute that)

Reducing class size increases achievement. Significantly. With no arguments.

Slowing the courses down for lower-achieving students would raise scores.

Reducing teacher turnover would raise scores.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2008 pm30 10:21 pm 10:21 pm

    Thanks–I didn’t start reading your blog until recently, but this reminds me of why you’re one of my favorite classroom teachers to read.

    A question on the policy side: suppose you had to choose between lowering your class size and lowering the number of students in a day. For example, you had to choose between six classes of 25 and four classes of 30 (longer periods, with any extra time having some work, too–don’t think you’re getting away from work for that!). Which do you take, and why?

  2. November 23, 2008 pm30 10:38 pm 10:38 pm

    Thanks for the very kind words.

    That’s not an easy question. If it was only about my class, I would choose slightly larger classes with more time. At this stage of my career, I can manage a room to keep more kids involved, create activities that engage students semi-independently, giving me time to devote bits of individual attention to those who need it. Say that there’s the neediest 5 out of 25 or the neediest 6 out of 30, but with more time – the neediest 6 of 30 will get more, and the remaining kids will get more.

    I already do things to restructure time – and this in a school with longer periods. One nice piece, administration allows me to take upperclassmen into class as service aides – they can provide initial assistance, freeing me up for more serious stuff, or, just Friday, I had a service aide work at a slower pace with 2 students who needed some help catching up.

    On the other hand, as a new teacher the extended time would have been a mess for me, and lowering class size, even marginally, would have been far more valuable.

    So, no real answer there… How about a little bit extra time and a smaller class? Any reason, any real reason, not to have both?

  3. November 24, 2008 am30 2:30 am 2:30 am

    Very lucid exploration of the benefits and need for supplementation of IMP and Connected Math. I am with you – I never understood why the assumption that we need to teach exclusively one way or the other. We should be striving to help them understand the concepts, we should be teaching them correct use of efficient algorithms, and we should be connecting the two.

  4. November 24, 2008 am30 7:27 am 7:27 am

    Thanks. I would write differently today, but many of the ideas were already either in place, or on the way. I notice at the end, the mathematical authority really belongs to the mathematics itself, not the teacher… But yeah, the big idea, the connection between procedure and understanding, that’s on target.

  5. November 25, 2008 am30 1:04 am 1:04 am

    what sherman dorn said, first of all.
    i’d like to take it for granted that jonathan already *knows*
    that he’s one of my favorites … so this is just for the record.

    the “math war skirmish” post (upblog) is *exactly*
    what the math wars need a whole lot more of:
    detailed reporting of events at particular schools
    by experienced and thoughtful participants.

    jd’s already disavowed the details of the letter at hand
    so i won’t get *into* details here … but neither will i resist
    pointing out that it’s mighty easy to overdo the appeal
    to the “reasonable center”. the idea that in any given
    difference of opinion (at the political level, say …
    a difference between factions rather than individuals),
    the right answer lies somewhere near the middle
    is pernicious as hell and looks to me like a recipe
    for *more* extreme views (a la the infamous
    overton window.

    on my reading, there are one heck of lot *more*
    lies, obfuscations, and utter nonsense (“not even wrong”!)
    on one side of the (math’ly correct)/(math’ly sane) virgule
    than the other (readers can guess which).
    the point here is that “reasonable” might actually be
    pretty close to the extreme that generally tends
    to use less-unreasonable rhetorical strategies ….

  6. November 25, 2008 pm30 12:12 pm 12:12 pm

    We were at war with the constructivists, so the story slants that way. But I’ve got as little time for the other side.

    My short version: traditional curriculum, with skill mastery, but glom on all the neat stuff the ed professors come up with.. Structure: traditional. Activities: “modern” knowing roughly what I intend the word to mean.

    I’ll come back and write more about this.

    In the meantime, go ahead, pick on details. If I was wrong, I may disavow, defend, or discuss. It’s not a bad starting point.

    And, yeah, thanks for making “the record” – always nice to hear


  1. I was once in a math war skirmish… (Part 2) « JD2718
  2. What makes a constructivist censor? « JD2718

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