PBS Documentary "Schools That Work" and TERC Investigations Mathematics

From: Stanley Ocken
To: Hedrick Smith Productions
Sent: Sun 3/27/2005 10:29 PM

Dear Mr. Smith,

I understand that you are planning a PBS documentary entitled "Schools that work" and are focusing, in part, on reform mathematics programs in New York City's District 2.

I'm a math professor at the City College of the City University of New York. In an effort to understand why too many students in college math classes seem unprepared for the demands of college level mathematics, I've studied the content, focus, and mathematical outlook of various K-12 curricula. Among the weakest is TERC Investigations, the K-5 curriculum used in District 2. Although the advertising for this program uses Mom-and-apple-pie buzzwords such as conceptual thinking, creativity, student-invented solutions, and the like, TERC is in reality a seriously dumbed-down math curriculum that offers a profoundly defective foundation for students who will eventually take mathematics courses in college. I was surprised to learn just how large this group is: each September, the number of U.S. four-year college students enrolling in first semester calculus is about forty per cent of the number of entering freshmen.

The problem with TERC Investigations and similar constructivist curricula is twofold: they are weak in content and they encourage what I would call anti-mathematical habits of mind. They seem oblivious to the fact that mathematics is a highly layered and complex structure in which working fluently at each new level requires automatic and cumulative mastery of facts and procedures from earlier stages. Further, TERC and similar curricula rely excessively on models and pictures while failing to prepare students adequately for the transition to the symbol-based mathematics that lies at the heart of algebra and calculus.

It is crucial for a responsible documentary to avoid taking at face value statistical analyses that purport to show rapid improvement in student performance. Many such analyses fall apart when scrutinized by disinterested professional statisticians. The What Works Clearinghouse, part of the federal effort to monitor and evaluate curriculum reform, has determined that the vast majority of submitted education "research" studies suffer from fatal flaws in experimental design, and, more importantly, that the few properly designed studies typically show extremely modest improvement in student performance.

For example, the ARC TriState Study, a three-year study of K-5 constructivist curricula, including the citywide mandated Everyday Math and District 2's TERC Investigations, showed, in essence, that median raw scores of 29 out of 50 for the control group improved only to 30 out of 50 for the reform group. The study failed to control for differential funding of and professional teacher development for reform versus control group curricula. In my view, it is likely that the very modest improvement in student performance of students using the reform curricula would have been equaled or exceeded by students in the control group had similar levels of funding and support been provided to their teachers.

I would add one additional caveat: even responsible news organizations, most recently the New York Times, fail to distinguish between two groups of educators. Professors of mathematics education are closely involved with K-12 curriculum development and implementation, whereas professors of mathematics (such as myself) are faced with the daunting task of teaching college students whose pre-college mathematics development was often hobbled by those curricula. This distinction is important in the present instance, for the NYC DOE, when making curriculum adoption decisions during the recent Children First initiative, accepted the advice of math education professors. In contrast, the DOE solicited (in a pro forma way) the input of a committee of mathematics professors, but ignored their unanimous opinion that constructivist curricula, TERC in particular, are detrimental to the mathematical health of New York City children.

I hope that your documentary will include commentary from mathematics professors in CUNY, NYU, and other institutions. One of their goals is to ensure that New York City K-12 students receive appropriate preparation for an increasingly rich spectrum of mathematics-based careers.

Stanley Ocken
Department of Mathematics
The City College of the City University of New York.

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