Board of Education

Postponed Calendar Meeting

January 23rd, 2002



Testimony of:

Professor Stanley Ocken

Department of Mathematics

The City College of C.U.N.Y. 


President Segarra and members of the Board:


Items 1 and 2   propose support for curricula based on the 1989 NCTM Standards. Recently, those Standards were examined by a subcommittee of Chancellor Levy’s mathematics commission, directed in part to evaluate and redirect the content of math instruction in NYC public schools so as to provide students with the tools

  • to become well informed citizens, and
  • to pursue more challenging courses, degrees and careers in mathematics based profession if so desired.


In order to offer all children access to rewarding careers, it is critical that no student be forced into a curriculum that precludes the second, more advanced, option.   Unfortunately, according to the draft document of the Commission report, the NCTM Standards include neither the rigor nor the formal algebraic skills  required by students who will go on to be engineers, scientists,  mathematicians, physicians, or educators of mathematics, to which list I would add business persons, architects, psychologists, and many more.  I agree completely with that assessment, as do a wide spectrum of mathematicians nationwide and particularly in CUNY.  In my own classes alone, over the course of thirty years at CCNY, hundreds of otherwise intelligent students have been forced by their inadequate algebra preparation to change their majors and their career plans.


K-12 mathematics curriculum reform is urgently needed. Unfortunately, the use of curricula supported by the proposed vendors is likely to increase significantly the failure rate in college mathematics courses. In particular, the K-5 TERC curriculum materials fail utterly to provide the basic experiences of symbol manipulation that are prerequisite to the development of algebra skills.


The preponderance of new mathematics curricula that fail to prepare students for college level mathematics is due, in my view, to a number of factors.


·        Virtually all of the so-called research evaluating the effect of new curricula on children used as experimental subjects has been conducted by developers or proponents of those same curricula.  Similar self-evaluation would never be tolerated, for example, to test a new vaccine that allegedly overcomes the deficiencies of an existing one, especially if those physicians who are most familiar with the content of the new product issued public warnings about its dangers.


·        Some curriculum developers and education professionals themselves have little or no knowledge of college level mathematics, and as a result cannot offer informed opinions about the effects of curriculum innovation on students’ later performance in calculus.


·        Parents and teachers who are highly critical of the new curricula, but who are afraid of consequences to their children and jobs, respectively, have been afraid to speak out.


·        Test results cited in support of pilot programs are tainted by a number of factors, including the prevalence of extensive outside tutoring in some districts and the use of evaluation tools that conform to the 1989 NCTM move away from formal and algebraic skills.


·        The vast majority of college and university mathematicians who have struggled to teach calculus in the face of precipitous drops in the algebra skills of incoming students were not consulted during the development or implementation of NCTM Standards-based curricula.


A critical theme of the Levy Commission Report is the need for seamless integration of New York City mathematics curricula in a single K-16 system. To comply with that vision, the Board of Education should not even consider K-12 curriculum changes without first evaluating their effect on students who will be taking mathematics in college.  I therefore urge that all future mathematics curriculum contracts, including those being voted on today, shall require approval by a review committee consisting equally of  

·        CUNY Mathematics Department chairs or their representatives; and 

·        vendors’ advocates, including curriculum developers and  mathematics educators.


Committee members would engage in a frank discussion of the consequences of curriculum innovation for all students, including those who will go on to pursue mathematics based careers.  Among the committee’s responsibilities would be

·         conducting confidential interviews with a representative sample  of teachers and parents of students in pilot programs;

·        correlating student performance with the level of  parental supplementation and outside tutoring they have received;

·        obtaining copies of all testing instruments used to evaluate pilot programs and evaluating their appropriateness as measures of preparation for college level mathematics; and

·        evaluating proposed curricula according to their projected effect on the success rate of  students in CUNY mathematics courses.


I believe that the children, parents, teachers, and taxpayers of New York City are entitled to the oversight that such a committee would provide. Thank you.