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'Calling Out' the Stalkers of Mathematics Education

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by Johnny W. Lott, NCTM President 2002-2004
NCTM News Bulletin, January/February 2004

When the word stalker is used, different images come to mind: a hunter, a shadower, or possibly a person who follows another person with the intent to harm. In recent years, a kind of stalking, lurking menace has focused on the field of mathematics education. It is time to confront this presence and "call it out" for what it is.

This menace to mathematics education has appeared in three guises: the expert who uses position or power in an attempt to denigrate the field; people who use half-truths, fear, and innuendo to try to control public opinion, school boards, and other agencies that work with mathematics education; and, finally, federal agencies that use money to bend state and local school systems to their will.

Consider the expert who uses position or power to denigrate the field. This person works in devious ways, such as becoming a "friendly" critic of journal articles and publications. Because journals like NCTM's Mathematics Teacher strive to publish content that is mathematically accurate, it behooves the journal to pay attention to any critic who challenges either the mathematics or the language of an article. Editors typically respond to such criticism by publishing a letter that corrects the mathematics (if needed) or by acknowledging that the critic's opinion differs from the author's. Over time it has become clear that some critics use their stature as experts to attack any thinking that disagrees with their own and even challenge the Council's academic integrity with threats to get their way. One such expert recently wrote, "If you do not acknowledge and correct this article as I have suggested, then I will spread the word that this journal lacks all credibility in the field." The journal has been stalked. Outside the academic world, threats of this nature might be met with legal action. Within the academic world, however, this is not done. But the journal must defend itself against such positions or else be publicly slandered. Regardless of whether the journal acknowledges this "expert's" position, it may continue to be harassed and maligned. We must stop this academic stalking while still allowing legitimate criticism.

Consider people who use half-truths, fear, and innuendo to control public opinion about mathematics education. As an example, look at Web sites that continue to use a public letter written in 1999 to then Secretary of Education Richard Riley by a group of mathematicians and scientists defaming reform mathematics curricula developed with National Science Foundation grants. Even though some of those who signed the letter subsequently retracted their statements or wrote letters stating that they did not sign the letter thinking it would be used as it has been, the letter seems to surface any time there is controversy over school curricula. A small group continues to use the letter in an attempt to thwart changes to mathematics curricula. This has been done in California, Massachusetts, and most recently New York. This letter is not the only example of half-truths and innuendo being used against mathematics curricula, even though continuing research shows that such curricula do in fact work when used by knowledgeable teachers. All of us must work to stop this stalking of reform mathematics curriculum.

Finally, consider federal agencies that use money to coerce state agencies and school systems to implement facets of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Although NCTM applauds and commends the intent to give every child access to mathematics taught by a highly qualified teacher, the manner of implementation of this law raises some concerns. States that do not yield to NCLB's underfunded mandate for external tests, do not define highly qualified teachers in a manner deemed acceptable, and do not provide a system to allow parental control of the schools that children attend may sacrifice any rights to specific federal funds. Although the Council acknowledges the need for changes that will close the achievement gap and offer a better mathematics education especially for children of poverty, it cannot condone the manipulation of schools with the possible loss of funding, the acceptance of people to teach with minimal qualifications through alternative certification, and mandates to change curricular standards to meet the expectations of some leaders in the federal government.

We can put a stop to the stalking and coercion of mathematics education by individuals, groups, and governments only by speaking out knowledgeably and by taking a united stand for mathematics education that serves students. That standards and curricula enhanced by the 1989 and 2000 publishing of the NCTM Standards documents have improved mathematics education is evident in the improved student scores on the SAT and NAEP. Regardless of what critics may say, we have evidence of what is working. Let us stand together and not allow the progress in the past 15 years to be set aside by a lurking menace looking to denigrate these accomplishments.

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