To understand the math program, professor says, follow the money

The Tribeca Trib
April, 2001

To the Editor

Peter Gale, a "former mathematician and parent of former P.S. 234 students", has written (March, 2001) concerning the School District 2 math curriculum and teaching. His letter ended with a renewed call for "a forum on the mathematics curriculum in District 2", a forum that he believes "the district has been considering" for about the past year. Mr. Gale would like that forum to be public, with speakers representing many different points of view, open to comments from the audience, and not merely a set of lectures from "the experts of District 2".

Elizabeth Carson, a current District 2 parent, has been leading a group in opposition to the current math program, and at one time had the agreement of the District to hold such a forum. She invited me to be a speaker for her side, along with a mathematician from NYU. I am Professor Emeritus of mathematics at The University of Rochester, and have done some work (in Albany) on the new Regents' math exams, as well as for other states and foundations in recent years. District 2 was scheduled to present two experts of their own, with the public invited to listen, question or object.

That was perhaps a year ago. The forum got postponed, then it got uncertain, and finally District 2 informed us that no forum was needed. Indeed, they are right: They have the answers already, and no amount of Forum would or can change their minds about the math curriculum. But they didn't explain this until we discovered it for ourselves, on the evidence of the web site of the National Science Foundation ("NSF").

Lucy West, Director of Mathematics for District 2, is Principal Inves- tigator for a five-year award from the NSF, amounting to an estimated $3,596,400, for a project entitled, Reconceptualizing Mathematics Teaching and Learning Through Professional Development. In applying for this grant three years ago, Ms. West proposed to use exactly the textbooks that are now in use, i.e. the TERC books called Investigations, and the Connected Mathematics middle school program, all as part of a teacher-education program, or perhaps research, with the children of District 2 and their teachers as subjects. (These textbooks and programs were themselves earlier developed with NSF subsidies, though they are now sold commercially, and they are the ones Ms. Carson -- and I -- consider destructive of math education in District 2.) The pwoject is scheduled to come to an end on May 31, 2003.

Since the District has over two more years to enjoy reconceptualizing at $600,000 per year, I think the best we can do now is to hope that by 2003 the NSF can be induced to change its mind on what constitutes a good mathematics curriculum, stop funding the ghastly programs it has been commissioning in recent years, and to permit the schools to enjoy a bit of local freedom instead.

I should add that this particular NSF grant (#9731424 if anyone wants to read the details) is not the only such project afflicting the City of New York. Award #9911841, Mathematics in the City, has for its principal investigator Professor (of education) Catherine T. Fosnot of CCNY. Ms. Fosnot is also co-principal investigator with Lucy West in the District 2 reconceptualization project, though she must also manage her own budget of $2,749,627 ("Estimated"), expiring in 2004.

Neither of these projects requires the aid of any real mathematicians let alone anyone as distinguished as my friends at NYU, or welcomes their scrutiny. "School mathematics education" these days is a specialty having very little to do with mathematicians -- or mathematics.

Ralph A. Raimi
Department of Mathematics
University Of Rochester

Reproduced with permission from the Tribeca Trib.

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