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I was once in a math war skirmish… Aftermath… We win… and lose

July 5, 2009 pm31 1:53 pm

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

Part 3: Teaching Math Connections

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.

Summary of Part 3: While we waited for a decision, I was assigned to teach Math Connections Year 3. 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.

But after two years, the class had been winnowed to 16 of the original 50, selected by niceness, attendance, and ability to solve first degree equations — not ability to attack 3rd year high school mathematics. I taught one term, realized what I was up against, and receiving neither permission to stop nor injunction against, put the books away just 4 months after starting.


The hearing in June 2001 went well. Herbert H Lehman HS library. Dave, our District Rep, 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.

The next Fall we received the decision. Schools could propose alternatives to MC and IMP, but would have to write full proposals that outlined what book, what curriculum, and what professional development we intended to replace them with. In other words, exactly where the Superintendent had failed, he was requiring teachers to step in. And, the Supe’s folks worked full-time on adoption, and arrived at garbage. We were being asked, in addition to our regular classroom duties, to create curriculum.

But slowly but surely schools figured out what to do. One of the weaker, but more traditional, high school math series offered built in PD and a lying document alleging alignment with NY State Standards (nothing special there – Math Connections had produced the same lie). One school, I think Walton, wrote a proposal that looked like it would be accepted, and school after school copied, adapted, modified it, and in a few months every high school in the Bronx except two had proposed a switch. Truman HS used IMP before the Superintendent had demanded constructivism, and retained it after his retreat. And at South Bronx HS the dishonest Assistant Principal, personally in love with Math Connections, never informed his staff that an alternative was available. They found out (I think I told them) and they changed one year later.

One year later Diana Lam imposed citywide curricula, and the work that teachers had been forced to do to dump Math Connections was itself dumped.

We won:

  • we got rid of a bad curriculum
  • we used the professional conciliation clause in our contract to effect change
  • we showed teachers had better judgment in curricular matters than many administrators

We lost:

  • we were not listened to when the initial selection was made
  • it took 3 years to clear the drech out. Pilot year. Year 1. Year 2. (I taught MC3 to the pilot group in Year 2).

  • we were assigned punitive “alignment” work to allow us to correct an awful Superintendent error.
  • and our work was thrown out completely (although MC was not brought back) by central office fiat.

Personally, I learned a lot. This was my introduction to the Math Wars, to math politics. This was when I permanently severed my relationship with NCTM, and began my relationship with AMTNYS. I learned about curriculum, about balance. I read far more from both sides and from the middle than I had while working on my masters. And it meant more. And I found elements of reason and elements of insanity on both sides. I became more conscious of what I thought math teaching should look like. This is when I wrote my Philosophy of Teaching Mathematics. These experiences prepared me for some killer job interviews, and probably landed me my current position. I have since planned a department’s curriculum and framework. I speak at conferences and workshops. I have been involved at the New York State level. And I blog about math education and problem solving, significantly informed by memories of the 1999 – 2002 Bronx math war skirmish.

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