Sound Basic Education and the New York State Standards for Mathematics

Elizabeth Carson
Co-Founder, NYC HOLD

November 1, 2003

Michael A Rebell
Executive Director and Counsel
Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Dear Mr Rebell:

As a NYC public school parent, I have participated in many CFE functions over the past several years, including community engagement forums, study groups and celebratory events. I attended the opening and closing days of the State Supreme Court trial heard by Justice LeLand DeGrasse.

I am cognizant of the present challenges to fulfillment of your victorious recent court ruling, mandating provision of fair and equitable state funding to support opportunity for acquisition of a 'sound, basic education 'and a 'meaningful' high school diploma for all New York students.

I read with interest your recent testimony before the State Assembly Education Committee regarding the NYS Regents Learning Standards and assessments and found myself in agreement with much of your message.

I suspect the state will indeed try to water down the standards and lower the bar for acquisition of a high school diploma to avoid accountability.

With regard to your assessment of our state standards and the process toward development, I'm afraid your testimony gives undue praise to the state, or at least, an incomplete picture. I'd like to inform you that specifically, neither the process to development of the mathematics standards, the Learning Standards for Mathematics, Science and Technology (MST) (1996) or the Regents assessments, themselves, have met with the unqualified approval of many mathematics experts or K-12 teaching professionals within and outside our state.

Concerns have been expressed about the process to standards and exams, in that both have lacked adequate participation by mathematics experts and senior classroom teachers. We face threat of repeating the same mistake in the process toward revisions advised by the Math A expert Panel, as well as in the work of the Governor's Commission on Education Reform.

The current state mathematics standards have been repeatedly described as "weak," "an alarming drop in the content and quality of school mathematics," "will push mastery of arithmetic, algebra and geometry to a new all time low," ".. will go a long way to destroying what is left of a once excellent program in school mathematics." (1)

The Regents Math A exam is described as a step up from the old RCT, but a step down from the previous Regents exams. "A student can actually achieve a passing score on the assessment [current Math A exam] with minimum algebraic skills." (2)

I am sure we agree that in most cases, in today's world, a meaningful high school diploma would require more than fulfillment of a partial algebra course.

I know I share with you the expectation that a quality standards-based reform would provide a framework and system of accountability that elevates the most possible number of our students to acquisition of an academic foundation that allows students the greatest number of future academic options and careers. In the instance of mathematics, this would include a system that defines the proper mathematics foundation to adequately prepare students for math and science high school coursework, reflecting their ability and ambitions ( rather than reflecting only the quality of prior training as occurs in our present system most often ); a system that provides for adequate preparation for students with ambitions to math based college courses and careers; and a system that allows for flexibility in curricula and assessment, but without provision of opportunity or incentive to lower the standards and opportunities for some.

We both, I am confident, would find entirely unacceptable, a standards-based reform that only APPEARS to fulfill the promise of higher standards and provision of a more equal opportunity for all students to an excellent K-12 education.

I submit to you that in order to expedite the recent CFE court decree - provision of state funding to support an adequate and "meaningful" education for all students - an adequate and excellent state framework and system of assessment is critically important to promote right now, and necessary to realize the CFE vision for NY children.

Coherent, explicit, grade specific, content rich and rigorous state standards, and an assessment system, that is flexible yet functional for the tests' intended purposes, gives important support to the work of educators, is necessary to guide the development and maintenance of quality local instructional programs and policy, and ensures local alignment with state standards and requirements for a high school diploma. For no finer example, I refer you to the California State Standards, which fulfill the parameters described above; state content standards that are inarguably the best in the US, and placed on a par with the highest performing countries in the world. (3)

Regarding our shared concerns for the outcome of the imminent work of the new Regents A Panel recommended standards and curricula committees, and the Governor's Commission on Education Reform, I wish to direct your attention to the California textbook adoptions process. While New York State does not prescribe a list of authorized textbook adoptions for local districts, as California, the California process to development of the textbook adoptions list is, in the opinion of many, a fine model for meaningfully involving all the important constituents and expertise, and providing transparency and accountability to the public,which together, are vital to the integrity and quality of education decisions relating to instruction and policy. New York State would be well served to model the California process in this most important regard. (4)

I'd like to bring to your attention the full text of a letter dated August 21, 1997 written to then Chancellor Carl T Hayden, authored by a group of distinguished mathematicians, one a Nobel laureate, expressing serious concerns, (including those quoted early in this letter) and offering some recommendations regarding the new math standards and Regents exams. (A copy of the letter is attached.)

I would also like to bring to your attention a recent position paper submitted to the Board of Regents ( October 8), authored by the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State (AMSNYS) which expresses some of the same concerns raised in the 1997 mathematicians' letter regarding rigor and proper preparation for the 21st century. The AMSNYS position paper requests a comprehensive standards aligned K-12 curricula, expresses concern for the scope and rigor of the Regents Math A and advises greater participation in the Regents B, the optional Regents Math exit exam intended for college bound students. ( an excerpt, quoted previously) A link to a pdf file of the AMTNYS position paper is listed below (2)

Both letters advise and request more meaningful involvement of the expert constituencies they respectively represent.

Given your current work toward fulfillment of the recent court ruling in CFE vs State of New York, I think it is extremely important that you are aware of the views and recommendations expressed in the two letters.

Many in the education community share your concern that the state may indeed compromise the integrity of the state standards and testing programs. I hope that the letters may provide some insights into how to help block the possibility of such action.

I hold perhaps a greater concern than you have at present, for the integrity and quality of the state mathematics standards and assessments, as well as local mathematics instruction, most particularly in NYC schools. Perhaps after close review and consideration of this letter and the experts' letters attached, you will come to both understand and share my concerns.

There are a good number of mathematics experts, seasoned classroom teachers, and informed and involved parents associated with NYC HOLD who would be quite happy to answer any relevant questions you might have, and more than willing to provide additional information, analysis and recommendations on a course toward provision of quality, meaningful mathematics instruction for all New York students.

My sense is that the experience and knowledge with regard to mathematics instruction held by the various constituencies of NYC HOLD, in total, hold important relevance and serious implications for the other academic strands in K-12 standards-based reform.

If I might be of any further assistance, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Best regards,

Elizabeth Carson
Manhattan CSD #2 parent
Co-Founder, NYC HOLD
Honest Open Logical Debate on Mathematics Education Reform

(1) Letter from Herbert A. Hauptman (Nobel Laureate, Chemistry) and others to New York State Schools Chancellor Carl T. Hayden (August 21, 1997). (Forwarded below )

(2) Math A Position Paper for NYS Regents, by the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State (AMTNYS), October 8, 2003

(3) Content Standards for California Public Schools Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve

(4) California Instructional Materials Adoption Process

NYC HOLD Steering and Advisory Committees
NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein
NYC City Council Education Committee Chair, Eva Moskowitz, and members

Letter from Herbert A. Hauptman (Nobel Laureate, Chemistry) and others to New York State Schools Chancellor Carl T. Hayden (August 21, 1997)

Return to the NYC HOLD main page or to the News page or to the Letters and Testimony page.