In Support of Moving MSP Funds from NSF/EHR to Education Department

Department of Mathematics
Rochester, New York 14627

Ralph A. Raimi Professor Emeritus

13 February 2004

The Honorable John A. Boehner: Chairman:Committee on Education and the Workforce House of Representatives Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Congressman Boehner:

Three years ago I visited your office and spoke with one of your staff members, urging that new legislation funding mathematics education projects under the NSF EHR (Education and Human Resources) division be sure to demand the participation of genuine mathematicians in any future mathematics-education research or teacher-education teams. What I had in mind was the terrible failure of the "Systemic Initiatives" of the 1990s, in which many millions of dollars, perhaps billions, were spent by partisans of a disastrous ideology of education recently called "constructivism" though with a long failed history under the title "progressive education" as well.

These projects first produced several textbooks, or maybe anti-textbooks, later widely advertised as "NSF-approved" or "NCTM-approved" - NCTM being the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; then, later in the 1990s, pressed on an unwilling public by education leaders with poor understanding of mathematics, via the Systemic Initiatives. Such programs as Core-plus were in effect forced on high school students by school districts which had been talked into it - "seduced" would be a better word - by professional education experts from the teachers colleges who were enabled to accomplish their mission with NSF-EHR funds. Other dreadful examples are (at the middle school level) CMP ("Connected Math"), and at the elementary level, the TERC "Investigations" program. There are others, too, pretentious, subversive of intellectual values and practically void of necessary mathematical content, infecting our public schools to where American school mathematics has for forty years been in continuous decline, all in the name of improvement - as "improvement" is currently defined in the colleges of education and nowhere else. It took years for parents to begin making their voices heard, and for some mathematicians to join them, in execrating these programs, for it has taken that long for a sufficient number of children to go through them and end up mathematically illiterate at the high school level, not to mention college, where the results are finally clearly observable. And college-intending students are not a small elite, either; they are half the population; furthermore, there are hardly any curricula left in the academy, and very few skilled trades for that matter, for which mathematics is not essential, useful or at least enlightening. This includes not only engineers and scientists from the universities, but also machinists, surveyors, electricians, carpenters, computer technicians, nurses and more others than I can think of.

I believe your Committee on Education and the Workforce was helpful in ensuring that the legislation I was anxious about in 2001, which ended up being called NCLB, contained provisions requiring NSF-EHR grantees to include genuine "subject-matter" professionals in their composition. I was pleased at that, and grateful, imagining that this requirement, plus careful "peer-review" such as has always been NSF policy, would improve the use of mathematics education money governed by NSF. In fact I was myself once appointed to one of the "peer-review" panels convoked by NSF to review a certain group of applicants - and sure enough, there was a mathematician attached to each MSP (Math-Science Partnership) proposal having to do with mathematics.

But I soon saw that this reform written into the law was insufficient for the purpose we had in mind, for the same group of people, those with experience in getting education grants, the inhabitants of the colleges of education, were running the show, while the "token mathematician" in each proposal was destined to have an inessential role, and certainly was never the Principal Investigator or the writer of the project descriptions.

True "Partnerships" were thin on the ground. These mathematicians were simply pasted in at the last moment, and the same was probably true for scientists. Here in my own university, which now does have a grant (to the Graduate School of Education) from NSF-EHR, the participating mathematicians were solicited well after the grant proposal had been completely written up by the professors of Education in their previous style and for their previous purposes. They read the "subject-matter specialist" requirement in the rule-book for grant proposals and then managed to put in a budget item including one, maybe two. Then - then! - they came to the math department (with which the School of Education has hardly been on speaking terms with for many years), hat in hand, offering NSF money for minimal services, something hard to resist for people who needed the money and besides thought they could do something useful by joining the project and maybe giving some inspirational lectures to the teachers who were the subject of the proposal's avowed solicitude.

But not only is their participation not useful under the current NSF-EHR dispensation, it is in service to an overall project extremely injurious to the hundreds, indeed thousands of students in the school districts affected in the Rochester neighborhood: The project compels the use of the anti-intellectual and anti-practical "fuzzy math" curricula, and spends its money on showing teachers how to use what in good conscience should not be used at all. Indeed, the better these programs are implemented, the worse the students will have been treated. Corresponding projects have been approved, for many millions of dollars, all over the country, under the MSP, which has now replaced the earlier, discredited, "Systemic Initiatives", by which NSF-EHR has been stunting the growth of the past generation.

It is piteous to read, as I have done, the many letters I have received from parents who rightly complain that the NSF is depriving their children of the elements of mathematics in pursuit of some notion of "discovery learning", an attitude that willfully disregards the past mathematical progress of mankind in the belief (assuming they still believe it) that children will DISCOVER the mathematics they need, and build self-esteem and much else in the process. Result: The aristocracy is sending its children to private schools, middle class parents are hiring tutors to teach the math the schools refuse to teach, and poor parents, or ignorant parents, are helpless to raise their children above their own unfortunate level.

The after-hours tutoring business in school mathematics has never before prospered as it is prospering now.

Let me add that the overwhelming majority of professional mathematicians agree with me about the proper goals of school mathematics, and not because we dream of turning everyone in the world into a mathematician. Of course, being a mathematician and being a teacher at the K-12 levels are different professions, and here in a research university like this one, with a highly selective admissions policy, many of our mathematicians are only dimly aware of the disaster in the public schools of recent years; but in places like the City University of New York (Brooklyn College, CCNY, etc.) the chairmen of the math departments are in fact vigorously organized against these terrible programs, for they see what has been done to the kids who are arriving as mathematically-deprived freshmen. They have in fact organized an email network doing its best to counter the damage.

In 1999 many research mathematicians and scientists signed a letter to then-Commissioner Riley protesting the labels "exemplary" and "promising" that had been awarded to the worst of these programs by the Department of Education, labels the publishers of the programs and their education school advocates still use for propaganda purposes even though the present Department of Education has removed those designations from their web site. The math education establishment, led by NCTM, has systematically reviled these mathematicians, and the many who have joined their number since that time, as ignorant of the true path of teaching, the nature of children, and the state of the public schools; but I would like to assure you that we are not really that ignorant.

Mathematicians who have looked at all into these programs are uniformly horrified, and many by now have perforce become acquainted with them because they have children of their own in the public schools. It will not do to say mathematicians have their heads in the clouds; they are parents like others. Quite apart from our appreciation of where elementary mathematics can lead at an advanced level, we are as well equipped as other parents to see the mathematical deprivation that has been imposed on their children by the poorly-advised NSF-EHR of the past ten or more years.

Now the new federal budget evidently has taken cognizance of this failure of NSF-EHR policy, and has proposed allocating the funds that would have been used for continuance of their long-failed policy to the Department of Education for block grants to the States, with part of the MSP money remaining temporarily with NSF for necessary continuance of earlier commitments. I urge you to support this change of policy. It is in no way a diminution of the respect we all have for the primary work of NSF, which over the years has been an enormous boon to American science and indeed mankind in general.

I myself have several times been the recipient of an NSF mathematics research grant (I am retired now, but still active in less arcane domains, though still related to mathematics and education), and I bless the NSF. It is its EHR division that has been the disaster, and that ideally should be closed down and its more worthy activities undertaken by other federal departments, presumably mainly the Department of Education. Failing this, the present proposed transfer of funds earlier intended for "Math-Science Partnership" programs to the Department of Education will at least save us from some of the possible continued damage these programs would accomplish in EHR.

I am not against expenditure for education, but the "peer review" process that works so well in allocating NSF funds for genuine science is a failure in the case of education because of the quality of the "peers": their prejudices, their interests, and in so many cases their plain ignorance. In science one can trust peers to make good judgments; in education it is best to spread the money for such experimentation as widely as possible, 50 different ways sounds good to me, in the hopes that some of the projects assisted by federal block grants will be worthwhile. What we have now is essentially a one-party system in the education world, and practically all the so-called research in education has but a single tendency.

EHR simply cannot be operated like the rest of NSF, and indeed it has been giving NSF a bad name among real scientists and the public. Please do what you can to finance future math education projects in the way suggested by the draft Budget that the Administration has submitted to Congress.

Yours very respectfully,

Ralph A. Raimi
Dept. of Mathematics
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

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