June 5, 2000

CSD 2 Board Members,


Dear Madam, or Sir,


Last fall, concerned at what appeared to be the failure of my 3rd grader to build on the mathematics she learned in 2nd grade, I began to look into the math curriculum at PS 11, and District 2. But, having begun concerned with the math curriculum increasingly I came to see another issue to be more important, and disturbing. Thus the questions I address to you here bear but indirectly on the math curriculum; and to pose them to you I mean briefly to describe how they arose for me.


What first struck me about the difficulties my 3rd grader was having with mathematics was that there was no textbook to look into to assess what she knew, in light of what she was expected to know; nor could I help her, absent a textbook, for I did not know how at any point a particular topic was being explained to her, according to the TERC method. Now you may think, as many parents I know do, that the solution to this problem is simply to hire a tutor. But, call me a fool, I cannot see why having paid for a public education anyone should pay privately because the curriculum is flawed, and beyond hope of improvement.


Which is why I began to ask questions in the first place, to see if it might be possible to improve the curriculum; and if my 8 year old wept with frustration staring at a page of math homework even with me there every day to help, just imagine the feelings of any child who does not have such constant care, or whose parents canít afford to hire tutors.


I had attended a "math night" at my school a year previous to this, but I left the presentation confused. For among other things we were shown a simple bar graph displaying the results of research which was said to prove that those who study math according to the TERC curriculum do best on a test, those who study according to the "algorithmic" method do much less well, but those who study math by mixing the algorithmic method with TERC do very badly indeed! Now without a good deal more information than the bald assertion that this is so, I have to confess I was a good deal less than convinced of the truth of this claim. But as we were not informed where one might get hold of this research so as to read and reflect upon it for oneself, I let the matter drop.


So I had questions about the math curriculum which I raised in the first place at a PTA meeting, where however they were met with the flat and dismal assertion, as I felt it, that the curriculum is set at the District level and so it is beyond the PTAís competence to entertain them.


Now this experience at the hands of the PTA has colored all my thoughts since; but be that as it may, in search of answers still I came to a District Board meeting where, thinking that if I were to learn what led whoever adopted TERC as the best math curriculum to do so, I might be equally convinced, I asked after the public record of the deliberations which led to its adoption. But while my question was seemingly kindly received, I waited in vain for any answer. So I returned to the Board, asked again, and this time was called a week or so later by Lucy West, who among other things told me that TERC was more egalitarian than other curricula, which is why there is so much political opposition to it from right wing reactionaries; a claim I donít mind telling you rather astonished me. But more to the point of my interest she also assured me there is no public record of the deliberations for which I sought.


Now while I thanked her politely of course, I did not then and do not now believe what she said. Not for lack of effort however but because I find it incredible that any single person would have the discretionary power to adopt a curriculum in the New York City public schools. Surely there must be a record of communications between Ms. West and the District Superintendent, for one, as well as between Mr.Alvarado, Ms.West, and a whole host of people within the central education bureaucracy, and outside consultants? For if there were not communication among those who sought to discover the best math curriculum for our children, would this not constitute a shocking failure of professional responsibility on the part of the District bureaucracy, and the Board itself?


At the same District Board meetings at which I raised my own question, a question was raised as to a public meeting being held to discuss the math curriculum; the proposal met with approval, at last, though again, here too I sensed that there had been, and was continuing, deep seated opposition. A balanced panel was spoken of however, and in such a way as led me to think that this discussion might provide me a chance to find answers to my own questions, for I took the assurance of "balance" to mean that the discussion would be open, free, and so far as it would involve employees of District 2, responsive. For the assurance was given, as you all know, by the District Superintendent, whose public utterance surely would reassure those employed by the District that they might feel free to speak their mind. Was this an unreasonable or foolish inference on my part, do you think?


You know that a "math forum" was held at PS/IS 89, under the auspices of the Parentsí Council, which drew a considerable crowd; but there was no hint of balance on the panel, which proceeded to describe how TERC would work in an ideal world, yet even so without allowing questions even for purposes of clarification. Now as my concern was not with any ideal world, I felt that this part of the evening, which as I mentioned to you, I had heard at a presentation at my school a year and more previous, was not satisfactory; as did the parents I questioned seated around me. About half way through the evening audience members were allowed to ask questions, to which responses were given by the panel, but not in my estimation, answers; which led to more frustration.


Toward the end of the panel presentation, voices from the back of the room shouted "Get to the questions", as the lights went on and off, then during the question period, voices from the front of the room shouted "Get to your question"; which would seem to prove that there was a strong and polarized opposition between on the one side, those who wanted a vigorous debate of TERC, and those who, for whatever reason, were bent on preventing it, donít you agree?


Again, those of you present know that the PS/IS 89 forum began with a lengthy presentation in praise of TERCís virtues, in course of which panelists said, among other things, that teachers who do not support the TERC curriculum should leave the District; and too that "longitudinal studies" prove that children taught according to the pre-TERC method are more likely to end up in prison than those taught by the TERC method; and told too that already math scores were improving as childrenís understanding of mathematical concepts was deepening, as might be seen if we but looked at a whole series of graphs and charts projected, however, at such speed as to defy comprehension; all this without opportunity for questions.


Hence I found myself pondering the question I raise to you now; did this "math night" provide the free, open, and responsive discussion to which I was looking forward? And if not, why not?


Whose interest is served, I asked myself then, and you now, by such a response to requests for discussion?


Not those like myself and those sitting about me that night, who said that they had heard presentations like this before, who had come in quest of an informed discussion and the chance to raise specific questions in search of specific answers. But if it didnít serve the interest of people like me, did it serve the interest of the District? Not likely, I think; for isnít one of the lessons we learned from President Nixonís Watergate debacle, that if people even only feel they are being stonewalled, this will increase their disgust, not diminish it.


Again, I asked myself then and you now, who among us does not believe that an informed deliberative process with respect to these matters is both advisable on pragmatic grounds and the duty of all who claim to teach science? (And mathematics remember, is still the premier science.) Isnít critically informed discussion precisely the scientific method, and too the foundation of democracy?




I appreciate that my invoking the terms "duty" and "democracy" here may strike you as sententious, and betrays my having been to the old school, but if these words have something of an air of the antique nowadays, yet I think you know what I am talking about.


At all events, in light of my experience at PS/IS 89, and the subsequent discussion at a District Board meeting, I raised some of my concerns in a letter to Doug Robinson, which he has not as yet found time to respond to. (Though I sympathize with Mr.Robinson who is very busy, Iím sure, with more pressing matters of public interest.)


Now I fully appreciate what a long and tedious recital this has been, but it leads me at last to pose these questions to you; do you believe that any of the claims I represent to be incredible are true? If so I should be grateful and fascinated to see what grounds you appeal in support of them. Do you agree that to tell people what no one can believe does not serve the interests of the Board, or anyone who raises questions about education in New York? If you do agree, what will the Board do in light of this experience to avert such polarization in future? For if this experience does not produce an effort to make the system more responsive, who will in future accept the Boardís assurance that parental involvement in their childrenís education is encouraged?


I trust each of you will read and reflect on the concerns I raise here, and look forward to hearing from you when you can find the time. In the meantime I am,


yours sincerely,


Garry Dobbins