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I was once in a math war skirmish… Part 3: teaching Math Connections

December 30, 2008 am31 1:06 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.

Part 1: Curriculum Imposed

Part 2: Math Teachers organize

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 MC classes went to newer teachers (with, generally, poorer classroom management) Training was lousy (trainers focused on constructivism; teachers needed content.)

Summary of Part 2: Senior teachers started to become concerned in 2000, and they helped set up a union response. A handful of us met over the course of a school year, and filed a request for professional conciliation. A skilled District Rep (a science teacher) pushed us with tough questions. We knew what we were against. We found it harder to identify what we were for. But we had enough together for a hearing in June 2001.

But after our hearing, we had to wait for a decision. It would be over the summer. In the meantime, we were entering another year with Math Connections in our school. 1999-2000, Year 0, we had a pilot class. 2000-01, Year 1, all the freshmen were enrolled. 2001-02, Year 2, we now had one group ready (not really, but let’s just say) for Math Connections Year 3.

And I was assigned to teach it.

I had to do it right. Anything less than full effort would be seen as sabotage. Plus, I thought that there was something intriguing about the different approach, even as I was certain that on the whole it was not the right way to run. And, and this is a big and, my requests to teach more advanced classes had been rebuffed year after year. This was the highest level stuff I would ever teach at the school.

There would be groups. There would be calculators, graphing calculators. Kids would do a smaller number of harder problems in class. I would run some sort of discussion. While it would be new for me, the kids would be in their third year of this, and used to it.


The text books were different from what I was used to. The Amsco books we used for Sequential Mathematics (NY State slightly scrambled algebra, geometry, trig with logic and probability thrown in) were awful, but had pages and pages of exercises. They were, for many of us, homework resources. Math Connections were slim, 8″ x 10″ volumes, 200-300 pages each, hardcover, 2 per year, that were meant for the kids to read.

I read first. And I was horrified. The reading level of the text moved up and down, almost arbitrarily. The math was buried in context, some of which functioned as distractor. And the writing about math… They first flub an explanation of functions on page 5. And it goes downhill. (in a discussion of the cost of yearbooks as a function of the number of yearbooks they write:

Recall that a function is a set of ordered pairs where no two ordered pairs have the same x-value and different y-values.

Ok, so far. But then:

This means that two different numbers of yearbooks will have two different costs

Not much damage done, since, as it turns out, students in Year 3 of Math Connections probably were never going to be in a situation where the difference between a function and a 1-1 function meant anything… but still.

Part of what was going on (in hindsight this is clearer) is that the authors were science people, who really cared about models, and not so much about mathematical language. There was lots of fuzziness – not the kind the California professors complain about, but the kind of fuzziness I engage in when I am applying the math and I get sloppy with i’s and t’s. The kind of sloppiness my hs physics teacher would have routinely allowed and encouraged.


After 2 years the original 50 kids (they held Math Connections classes to 25 to a class, at first, unlike the normal 32-34) had dwindled. I think I had 16. That would make it about the smallest class in the department (school of over 3000). I don’t know how they decided to promote, repeat, or remove from the sequence. But the kids I had: had good attendance; had no IEPs; were native English speakers.

Two thirds had passed the Math A exam (lower level NY State high school exam, largely basic algebra, geometry (calculations, no proof), descriptive statistics), but several had not.

It turned out that some of them knew the drill, but some didn’t. Some of the mathematically weaker were very nice (likely how they managed to advance), but some of those who had some skill came with awful behavior. The group work didn’t help. And they damaged the tone. It was like have a few middle school kids in an 11th grade class.

But the real concern was mathematical preparation. They could all solve first degree equations. They could all use a graphing calculator. Beyond that, your mileage varies. Some were quite comfortable introducing and defining variables; others were not. It was as if the previous two years had been rudimentary mathematics that gave the kids with poor attendance a chance to leave.


I did what the publisher said. But I embellished. I chose good exercises, very few, but good. I had the kids discuss. I led discussions. I kept them grouped up. I kept them using the graphing calculators far more than was appropriate (and how do you do everything in class with them when the kids don’t have them at home to do with homework?)  Oh, right, very little homework. I omitted what needed to be omitted. And I got them, in one term, through three of the four chapters in Math Connections 3a. (Algebraic Functions, Exponential Functions and Logarithms, The Trigonometric Functions)


I got visited by the teacher/trainer once or twice. She had taught these kids for the previous two years. She now coached more, taught less. I got visited by the AP once or twice. And I got visited by the publisher’s rep once.

One day the AP told me the publisher’s rep was coming back to my classroom.

“You are my supervisor. You have the right to come in to my class any time. You know that my door is open to colleagues. They are always welcome. But this is not a supervisor, not a colleage. It is a vendor. If I need to allow him in, I would like it in writing.”

“It’s not from me, it’s from above” (gesturing in the general direction of the Bronx Superintendant’s Office)

“Then I’d like to see the memo”

“You know, when he came in, he thought you were doing a terrific job, that you really got it. He wanted to talk to you about a job with the publisher, but I told him you probably wouldn’t be interested.”

“Thank you. He really can’t come in until I have it in writing from you or the Supe.”

And he never did.


We never did get to Chapter 4. The change of terms was coming, and some kids needed to prep for Math A. And the kids could tolerate only a moderate pace, with all the skills that needed reteaching, and the classroom disruptions. And, in the spirit of the thing (and I was really doing my best), I was teaching largely for understanding, and tolerating pretty bad skill gaps. It was a slow process.

I wrote to my AP:

January 16, 2002
Ms. AP,

For the term about to end we had one section of Connections Year 3 (MCN5), running with 16 students.  In the course of this term it has become quite clear that the algebra level of this class is quite low.  One of the stronger students is moving away in February.  And five of the others have not yet passed Math A and need regents.  Further, [the teacher/trainer] has advised that there are districts firmly committed to Math Connections that all the same do not use Book 3B (MCN6).

I recommend:

1.    The ten students with Regents credit be spotted to Intermediate Algebra (ME4)
2.    The five students without Regents credit be spotted to ME4 if they pass the January Math A Regents, or the Need Regents course if they do not.
3.    That MCN6 not run Spring 2002

teacher MCN5

cc:   [teacher/trainer]
[guidance counselor]

There was never a formal response to this letter (the AP hated putting anything in writing), and she kept the class together. But we never distributed the Math Connections 3b text. That Spring we did various sorts of Regents prep, and I tried to keep it engaging. The remaining kids (after an additional transfer) really were nice. But the course was lousy. And their preparation was, too. I think all of them passed Math A. Only a few passed B. They needed to fill in way too many gaps.

Last part: Aftermath – how this ended. Conclusions to be drawn.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. LAXMI KUMARI permalink
    July 4, 2009 am31 1:42 am 1:42 am


  2. Lori permalink
    June 23, 2011 pm30 5:43 pm 5:43 pm

    Have you seen the current Amsco math books? They are actually very good.

    • June 23, 2011 pm30 6:15 pm 6:15 pm

      I’ve removed your AMSCO website link and your AMSCO e-mail from your comment. Spamming a blog is not professional.

      Further, if AMSCO were doing so well, that would not really be necessary, would it?

      • Lori permalink
        June 24, 2011 am30 9:46 am 9:46 am

        I do not consider adding a comment to a blog to be spamming. As the chief editor of Amsco, I often engage in discussion with educators in online platforms. You will notice that I provided my name and my business e-mail. As for adding the link to our blog site (not our company Web site), I did so because your form requested it. I’m sorry you took offense.

        • July 9, 2011 am31 8:16 am 8:16 am

          I think in the case like yours, the discussion can be had, but the form needs to be different.

          There are math teachers who would welcome a chance to discuss with Amsco’s chief editor – and it would not have bothered me if such discussions occurred here.

          I reacted to the plug/link looking more like advertising than like an opening to discussion.

          This seems to have been inadvertent; no harm done. In the future I would be careful to begin with a self-id.


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

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