February 12, 2004
To the members of the House Science Committee:
My name is Stanley Ocken: I'm Professor of Mathematics at the City College of the City University of New York, where I have spent the last five years developing courses and materials for the math content course required of undergraduate education majors. During this time I have examined carefully K-8 math curricula that were funded by the NSF EHR directorate over the past decade.
Congressman Sherwood Boehlert wrote: "some glaringly bad [FY 2005 science budget] decisions already stand out. Primary among them is the proposal to move the Math and Science Partnerships from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the Department of Education."
I respectfully but strongly disagree.
Most of the EHR-funded curricula are a disgrace and their ongoing implementation poses a clear and present danger to our nation's security. They consistently de-emphasize symbolic manipulation and algebraic skills, precisely those components of the elementary mathematics curriculum that are critical preparation for college level mathematics and science courses.
The stated justification for such curricula is their focus on thinking and critical skills rather than 'rote manipulation.' This false dichotomy is nothing more than a cover-up for the sad fact that the EHR-funded developers of these curricula have completely abdicated their responsibility to prepare students for serious mathematics work. In this regard, I recommend Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece in the February 11th New York Times, which observes that U.S. jobs are being outsourced to precisely those countries offering traditional strong algebra preparation to pre-college students.
What is most outrageous is that well-known mathematics educators themselves cannot pass the placement test for admission to a standard college precalculus course. In New York City, NSF funded a major curriculum implementation project in which both co-PIs clearly fall into this category. Such people are unqualified to evaluate the long-term consequences of the educational practices they advocate, yet they exercise disproportionate influence over local educational policy.
I urge you to facilitate the dismantling of the mathematics component of the EHR directorate. Instead, the House Science Committee should channel funding only to those mathematics education projects that have been vetted by university mathematics faculty, most of whom struggle constantly to prepare intelligent but badly prepared students to contribute to the nation's technical and scientific infrastructure.
Very truly yours,
Department of Mathematics
The City College of the City University of New York
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