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I was once in a math war skirmish… (Part 2)

November 24, 2008 am30 7:54 am

In the late 1990s the Math Wars, ignited in California, were spreading across the country. I was a witness (participant?) in a skirmish in the Bronx. Read Part 1 of my story.

Summary of Part 1:  In 1999 our superintendent forced schools to pilot a choice between IMP and Math Connections. My school went for MC, as did about two thirds of the Bronx. The following year we faced full adoption, without seriously examining how the pilots ran. The first group of teachers involved got jobs with the publisher, and became (in many instances) unpleasant enforcers of the publisher’s will. All the Math Connections classes went to newer teachers (with, generally, poorer classroom management) Training was lousy (trainers focused on constructivism; teachers needed content.)

Senior teachers had believed themselves safe. But the chaos got worse and worse, they found themselves unable to assist newer teachers, the trainers got nastier and nastier, and the senior teachers started counting the terms before they would be forced to teach the crap. At a UFT event in October or November 2000, a math teacher asked Randi Weingarten about math, math teachers from other schools joined in, I got shoved into the conversation, the Bronx HS District Rep came over, and we walked away with a commitment to meet and see what we could do.

The DR was Dave, a science teacher, loads of years in the system. Real hands on guy, and with an intellectual curiosity. Dave was a smart teacher, and was used to arguing the pros and cons of pedagogy, content, policy.

The first meeting was in December, at Lehman HS. There were maybe 8 – 10 teachers there, though I can recall only 7: from Evander, and Walton, Columbus and Truman, Kennedy and Lehman, and Jane Addams; there must have been a few others. And at the first meeting, the teacher’s talked.

much more below the fold

We explained the situations in our schools. Truman actually liked IMP, Lehman was running both IMP and MC, the rest of us had MC in the schools and were getting bossed around by trainers and Bronx teachers who had gotten part-time jobs with the publisher. The Truman guy wanted to make certain that we let them stick with IMP. The rest of us were really concerned with Math Connections.

And we discussed the content of the program, and the ways teaching was being affected. I was only one there (besides the DR) not teaching either program, so I got an earful of what it was like to teach Math Connections in other schools (and it matched mine). There were general complaints about the strange order (lead with data analysis?), strange choices of real world examples, a general dearth of exercises. Much was written so that pencil and paper were out of the question – a calculator seemed to be needed at all times. Topics were late, or (in the case of factoring) completely missing. The required classroom routine – put kids in groups, read the section, do one or two extended problems – was foreign. And there was no sense that any skill acquisition was occurring, save some calculator keystroke sequences. Plus, there were small, annoying mathematical errors in the text.

I will address some of these issues in Part 3. For now, I will say that we over-reacted to some issues, but we also missed some fairly large problems. There was a general sense of shock, of upset. We knew this was wrong, and it was so obviously wrong… Our reaction was not perfect, but we were right to react.

OK. So Dave begins to summarize for us what we have said. It is fascinating. He has no immediate stake in the process or the outcome, but he is representing teachers – and he distills maybe 10 or 15 main areas of concern. And he suggests, or was it the teacher who first asked Randi Weingarten the question? that we file a “Request for Professional Conciliation” under Article 24B (District Level)

1. A teacher(s) who wishes to conciliate a professional difference regarding a community school district, high school or Citywide special education superintendency policy/procedure shall forward it to the UFT school chapter for review. If appropriate, the chapter will forward it to the district representative who will present the issue to the superintendent.

a. If the issue is addressed by the superintendent, he/she should resolve it within ten school days.

b. If the issue is not addressed at the end of that period, or, if the superintendent elects not to address the issue in this fashion, the district representative may refer the issue for conciliation to the UFT Coordinator.

2. After a decision to proceed with conciliation has been made the Board Coordinator will assign a Conciliator within five school days. The Conciliator will initiate the conciliation process within ten school days with the district representative and the superintendent. This stage of the conciliation process is expected to be completed within a month unless the participants, including the Conciliator, believe it beneficial to continue the process.

3. At the conclusion of the conciliation:

a. If a resolution is reached, the Conciliator will prepare an agreement for both parties to confirm and sign. It is understood that for any agreement that requires a waiver of a policy adopted by a community school board, the superintendent would be expected to seek the waiver. It is expected that both parties will adhere in good faith to the agreement.

b. If there is no resolution, the Conciliator will send letters to the parties and the Board and Union Coordinators confirming termination of the conciliation process.

Dave arranges a series of meetings, about one a month, open to all math teachers from affected Bronx High Schools, to organize and prepare a request for Professional Conciliation late that Spring. Other math teachers came to one or two meetings, but our core was really a group of 5 teachers from 5 schools: Kennedy, Walton, Jane Addams, Columbus, and Lehman. And we were ready to get down to business. Or so we thought.

One jolt came from the DR. Smart guy, he had listened to our issues, our concerns. But he didn’t say “there, there, we’ll fix everything” Instead, he identified some issues we had missed or ignored. Today’s expectations were for everyone to graduate with an academic diploma – there really was no other type, and post high school options for non-graduates were not good, where they existed at all. The old fashioned math that one of our number strongly favored, it was good for reaching the 50% who used to get academic diplomas, but not for the bulk of today’s Bronx, who were not in that old 50%, but who needed the credential just the same.

He was challenging us. He was challenging us to propose something better than “back to basics,” better than the Sequential Mathematics we had been teaching, and better than Math Connections. Part of the job we were ready for: identifying what was wrong with MC. But we needed to refine our attack. And we needed an alternative.

The other big jolt came earlier, when one of our number tried to attach our cause to the second lady’s efforts at school reform. But Lynn Cheney never became an issue. All of us read up on some part of the Math Wars. Me, I really had not been aware of them in advance. But we successfully avoided joining with one side or the other (even though, in fact, we were attacking a bad constructivist curriculum).

Through the Winter and Spring we worked. Teachers from other schools, I remember Evander, Clinton, Stevenson came by and commented or helped. Extra teachers from Lehman, Columbus and Kennedy participated at times. But the main core, Dave plus five of us, chugged along.

The critique of MC got sharper. I added (and remain proud of this) that the experience of senior teachers in the Bronx was being wasted, thrown away, as they could not assist new teachers with the non-developmental curriculum. We identified more errors. We developed a critique of the non-coherent presentation.

The positive side was tougher. We adopted, at least on paper, the idea that students need a balance between routine skill building and non-routine problems. We wanted more algorithmic work. We wanted reading in some lessons, but not dominating it. We wanted more ‘regular’ work to engage kids, to allow us to spend time with kids who needed more help. We emphasized using the calculator in addition to, not instead of…

We also, gingerly, critiqued the curriculum adoption process. MC was imposed on schools, with no buy in from teachers. There was resistance. There was lack of familiarity. The change in how the classroom and lessons were arranged (groups, calculators, reading) were foreign. No one was convinced, trained, given adequate practice. What might have been difficult and slighlty unrealistic in a suburban setting, with a homogenous class of 18, was transferred as a complete failure to urban classes of 30+ with ELLs and kids with (diagnosed and undiagnosed) LDs and behavioral issues and kids who were 2, 3 or even 6 grade levels behind in reading. Anything new in the Bronx would be challenging, but getting it done without teacher participation would be extremely difficult, and without teachers on board would be impossible.

Dave suggested that we  consider an “IEP for every kid” which is both overwhelming and necessary, and was more than we could realistically put together. But it did help us make the point that it was harder to individualize with MC, and even harder since we were thrown off our game. And it was also good that the idea got an airing, since it informed our commentary and our views looking forward.

As the year was drawing to a close, I summarized my views in a letter to Dave. I’ll publish it here, unedited. It helped me prepare for the hearing.

Finally the time came. It was June 2001, Year 1 (Year 0 was pilot only, Year 1 was full adoption). Herbert H Lehman HS library. Dave and a group of teachers on our side. The Bronx HS Superintendant and one of his deputies on the other. We had a little audience. And maybe the supe had some extra people, as well. Dave opened, and teachers presented. The Deputy Superintendant presented as well, ISTR. And then we added comments and answered some of the Supe’s questions. And it was over.

Next: Part 3 – jd2718 teaches Math Connections!
Finally: Aftermath – how this ended. Conclusions to be drawn.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2008 pm30 7:37 pm 7:37 pm

    This has been quite a story so far – I hope it has a happy ending!

    It sounds like the whole episode, however painful, helped you to develop your own ideas about how you wanted to teach. Not that that’s an excuse for administrators to impose instructional changes without properly involving teachers.


  1. I was once in a math war skirmish… Part 3: teaching Math Connections « JD2718
  2. What makes a constructivist censor? « JD2718
  3. I was once in a math war skirmish… Aftermath… We win… and lose « JD2718
  4. I was once in a math war skirmish… (Part 1) « JD2718

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