How reflexive partisanship undermined math education (Opinion)

Barry Garelick, a veteran educator and author, is one of the most discerning observers of math education in the country. Earlier this year I wrote on his latest book, Good behavior, and regular readers have encountered his occasional guest posts. Well, prompted by Liz Cheney’s courageous role on the January 6 Committee, Barry wrote to me recently to share some thoughts about his time working on Capitol Hill when Cheney’s mother, Lynne Cheney, encountered a partisan steadfast in disputes over the teaching of mathematics. I found Barry’s take timely and evocative and thought I’d share it with you.

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Like many people, I followed the January 6 committee hearings. I was struck by an irony that is particular to my own experience of ideology, politics, and partisanship when it comes to (wait for it) math education. Let me explain to you.

Liz Cheney has demonstrated her belief that the Constitution and the oath that public servants take to uphold it trump partisanship. What I find ironic about this goes back to my experience with the world of math education in which another Cheney – Lynne Cheney, Liz’s mother – spoke out against what she saw as the deplorable state of math education in the United States and has also faced partisanship.

I learned of Lynne Cheney’s involvement in math education in 2002 during a six-month assignment in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D, Ore.) while working for a federal agency in DC, I was assigned to investigate what was going on at K -12 math education. I had long conversations with various mathematicians who were concerned about the way math was currently taught (called “fuzzy math”) and I was advised to follow what Lynne said about teaching math .

She was highly respected by the (mostly) Democratic mathematicians I spoke with. She criticized recent changes in math teaching methods that had been implicitly incorporated into standards written by the National Council of Mathematics Teachers in 1989 and revised in 2000. In a nutshell, the new standards discouraged memorization and targeted to have students “understand” math, rather than just “do” math, because traditionally taught math is often misinterpreted.

The philosophy behind the NCTM standards is the basis of what is called reform mathematics. At the heart of math reform is the fixation on understanding and that it must precede the learning of standard procedures, lest these overshadow the conceptual foundation of what makes the procedure work. The result has been confusion as students learn convoluted and ineffective strategies before learning the standard method. (More on this and related issues discussed here.)

Lynne Cheney has championed the fundamentals of traditionally taught mathematics as well as methods of reforming mathematics. While I was working on the Hill, she hosted a forum on math education, which was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Two panel members also objected to the direction that mathematics education was taking. They both held Lynne in high regard, were not politically conservative, and did not care about her party affiliation.

At the time, the role of the National Science Foundation was essential for me. The NSF had awarded millions of dollars in grants to write math textbooks that embraced NCTM’s standards and philosophy of math education.

Since Wyden was on a committee overseeing the NSF, I thought it was important to pass this information on to Hill staff members involved in education. But when I started describing the situation to someone who worked for another senator on that same oversight committee, she replied, “You sound like Lynne Cheney.

Staff members in Wyden’s office reacted similarly. They had already heard from other Democratic staffers that it would be wise to stay away from the “fuzzy math/Lynne Cheney/Bush agenda” issue.

The result was that Wyden was never told how (and excuse me for the next sentence) “the big lie” about math education was perpetuated and implemented under the auspices of the NSF and taxpayers’ money. In short, the Democrats did not want to take over an ideology embraced by the Republicans.

The years passed, but the arguments about teaching mathematics remained static. And in 2009, along came the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. These were initiated and promoted under the Obama administration and were therefore viewed through the partisan lens as spawned by the Democrats. Eventually, most countries except five states adopted the standards due to strong federal financial incentives.

The standards added fuel to the ideological fire that had been raging since the early 1990s over how to teach mathematics. The math standards essentially codified the NCTM’s math reform ideology by incorporating what Tom Loveless (formerly of the Brookings Institution) calls the “dog whistles” of math reform: words like “understand”, “explain” and “view”.

The implementation of common core math standards in the form of textbooks and teacher training through professional development providers has been a Pavlovian-like response to these dog whistles. Students are asked to explain, often in writing, how they solved a problem, in addition to showing their work. If students fail to solve a problem in more than one way, they are said to lack “understanding”. They are also required to use heavy strategies for basic arithmetic operations. (An example of this is provided in the testimonial given by a parent in front of the Arkansas State School Board.)

Today, the partisan nature of what should be a non-partisan issue continues. Some states, such as Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio, to name a few, with Republican governors have ordered the replacement of Common Core standards. The replacements, however, are essentially the same standards under a different name with only slight wording changes. Problems that existed under the original standards remained. Governors who ordered the end of Common Core standards point to so-called revisions and replacements and brag about ridding their states of Democrat-infused standards.

The bottom line: The politics surrounding the mischaracterization of traditionally taught mathematics continues as it has for the past few decades. Meanwhile, textbooks and teachers perpetuate ineffective methods of teaching math fundamentals, such as convoluted and ineffective strategies instead of standard algorithms and procedures, all in the name of “deeper understanding.” Parents continue to complain about their children’s math lessons.

Not much has changed since the days when Lynne Cheney made the rounds some 20 years ago. Perhaps after Liz finishes her January 6 hearings, she can pick up where Lynne left off with the message that math, like an oath to the Constitution, should be independent of political baggage.

Barry Garelick is a seasoned educator and the author of several books on math education, including his most recent, Out on Good Behavior: Teaching math by looking over your shoulder. Garelick, who worked in environmental protection for the federal government before entering the classroom, has also written about math education for publications such as The Atlantic, Education Next, Nonpartisan Journal of Education, and Education News.

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