NSF/EHR Damage to Mathematics Education

Letter to Congressman Sherwood Boehlert
By David Klein

The Honorable Mr. Sherwood Boehlert
Chairman, House Science Committee
2320 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

April 15, 2002

Dear Chairman Boehlert;

I'm writing to thank you for the important work you have done as Chair of the House Science Committee, and to urge continued close oversight of the Education and Human Resources Division (EHR) of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

For the past decade, the NSF/EHR has taken a consistently extreme position on mathematics education for America's schools. EHR funded math textbooks are of such low quality they have drawn the attention of university mathematicians across the nation. Hundreds of mathematics professors have publicly criticized NSF funded math books and programs for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.

As an example, more than 200 prominent mathematicians and other scholars co-signed an open letter to former Education Secretary Richard Riley that criticized a list of ten math programs, six of which were directly funded by the NSF/EHR. The list of signatories to that open letter includes science and mathematics department chairs from many leading universities, as well as seven Nobel Laureates and winners of the Fields Medal, the highest international award in mathematics. The open letter was published November 18, 1999, as a full page ad in the Washington Post, with as many of the signatories that would fit onto the page. That open letter together with its list of signatories is available from the link: http://mathematicallycorrect.com/nation.htm

Through a variety of funding policies, the Education and Human Resources Division of the NSF has single mindedly embraced a narrow and dubious point of view on mathematics education. Starting in 1991, the EHR developed a series of Systemic Initiative grants to encourage state education agencies to align their state mathematics standards to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards (the NCTM Standards). As noted above, the NSF/EHR also funded the creation of commercial curricula reflecting those controversial standards. Following this, the NSF paid for the marketing of the commercial products it had helped to create. The NSF/EHR continues to fund teacher-training programs whose outcomes include pressuring teachers to use NSF funded products.

The NSF has given national recognition to teachers who commit to NSF/EHR funded products without asking important questions about the effectiveness and validity of those products. The EHR also funds what might best be described as "advocacy research" on the effectiveness of its sponsored textbooks, inservices, and other programs. The EHR funds research into the effectiveness of its educational programs in ways that are coupled with the funded activities. The result is a kind of "advocacy research" which cannot be taken seriously by scholars or by the public. The kind of advocacy research promoted by the EHR undermines real progress in mathematics achievement for America's school children.

Perhaps an analogy would help to illuminate the deep flaws in the NSF/EHR policies for mathematics education. If the current EHR model were followed, for example, by the Biology Directorate at the National Science Foundation, then the NSF might support the development only of a single gene chip, pay for a biotech company to market the chip, and then only support research proposals that require the investigator to buy and use that chip exclusive of all other chips on the market.

I encourage you to continue your good work as Chair of the House Science Committee, and I especially urge you to exercise diligent oversight of the Education and Human Resources Division of the National Science Foundation, and to insist that the EHR broadens its narrow and damaging perspective on mathematics education.

David Klein
Professor of Mathematics
California State University, Northridge

cc The Honorable Mr. Nick Smith, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Research

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