Monday, August 6, 2012

MathFest 2012 and Common Core State Standards in Math

Andrew Hacker’s article "Is Algebra Necessary?" in the New York Times was a hot topic last week and mentioned by several presenters at the 2012 MathFest session "What Mathematics Should Every Citizen Know?".  The panelists, Bil lMcCallum, Lynn Steen, Hyman Bass, Joseph Malkevitch, and co-organizer Sol Garfunkel, were actually reacting to the Core Curriculum State Standards in mathematics.

Mathematicians and math educators agree that we are not  currently doing the best job of teaching algebra.  But unlike Hacker, the math community believes the appropriate strategy is to improve algebra instruction, not to abandon it to all but an elite few pupils.

On the other hand, the speakers on the panel, although quite civil with each other, clearly had disagreements about the best strategy to improve math education in the US.

McCallum, who was the lead mathematician in the development of the CCSS, emphasized the benefits of having commonality across states.  Having a set of standards that could be adopted by 45 of the 50 states (so far) required compromises, but the benefits accrue not only to pupils and teachers in our mobile society, but to all who do business with textbook publishers who currently provide materials for the multitude of different curricula.

Steen gave some numbers showing the dismal success of preparing US students for STEM, but argued that we should improve rather than remove algebra from the curriculum.  He favors a modeling-based approach and avoidance of common assessments.  When asked how to accomplish his recommendations, he cheerfully remarked that he doesn't need to worry about that now that he's retired.

Bass focused on pedagogy rather than curriculum as the key to improving math education.  Student learning is increased when the instructor employs appropriate classroom strategies.

Malkevitch promotes widening the curriculum.  He argued that we need to show many ways that mathematics impinges on daily lives.  He gave combinatorial graphs and fair choice algorithms as examples of mathematical topics that are new and accessible to very young children.

Garfunkel believes that the entire K-12 mathematics curriculum should be centered on modeling. He echoed Malkevitch's suggestions that the US curriculum needs to be widened, and said that Bill Schmidt had paid an advertising agency to create the phrase "a mile wide and an inch deep" that is used to characterize the US K-12 curriculum following the disappointing ranking of the US high school students in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

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