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It's Time to Work Together

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by Johnny W. Lott, NCTM President 2002-2004
NCTM News Bulletin, September 2002

A great deal of energy has been expended in the heated debates about reform in mathematics education. One has to think only about the variety of students that schools serve and the number of parties who have a vested interest in the mathematics that students are taught to understand how time consuming and draining the debates can be. Despite strong convictions and good intentions, there have been no clear winners in the "math wars." What we seem to have are students who received mixed messages from the schools and media, bewildered and frustrated parents who want the best education possible for their children, and mathematics educators who are embroiled in the controversies. For the sake of all students, we should declare a truce. Those who are engaged in the debates should agree to disagree on some things and begin making decisions about the common ground they do share in order to pursue real improvements in mathematics education.

What do we agree on? While different groups have fundamental disagreements over what constitutes high-quality mathematics instruction, most agree that students deserve and need the best mathematics education possible for the future.

For many schools, calculus is the ultimate goal of the high school mathematics curriculum. Thus, the curriculum has been developed in a way that would lead students toward a calculus class. However, the Statistical Abstract of Undergraduate Programs in the Mathematical Sciences in the United States: Fall 1995 CBMS Survey, by Don O. Loftsgaarden, Donald C. Rung, and Ann E. Watkins (MAA, 1997), showed that less than 15 percent of the entire population of students who attend postsecondary schools ever enroll in a calculus class. If we all agree that mathematical literacy is important for every student and that most students are likely never to take calculus, then precollegiate mathematics should prepare all students for successful futures and careers, not just those few who will need calculus in the future.

What can we do together to improve mathematics education? We can ensure that all students have access to curriculum that connects them with deep understanding of key mathematical concepts.

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  • All interested parties should work to change the messages that colleges and universities send to secondary schools, specifically the idea that college-bound students must take calculus in high school.

    Often one of the prerequisites for acceptance in colleges and universities is a course in calculus. College placement tests are geared toward students who have taken 'calculus-intending" classes; messages in the program view books of many universities reinforce this perception. With these types of messages to secondary schools from universities, it is no wonder that the secondary curriculum is slanted to lead all students toward calculus, rather than to the mathematics that could be more useful to more students.

     

  • All interested parties can work to design mathematics courses at both the high school and collegiate levels that will be relevant to all students' lives and careers.

    While precollege teachers cannot ignore the needs of students who are heading toward mathematics- and science-related careers, they cannot ignore the needs of students who will not enter those fields but who must be empowered by a strong understanding of mathematics. We must think very carefully about making intellectually honest mathematics available to students at all levels. This means that the curriculum should foster students' understanding of ideas and how to apply them, but it should be different from what has traditionally been offered.

     

  • All segments concerned with mathematics education can support Federal funding for the projects that have been created to advance and improve mathematics education.

    Support is needed for mathematics projects like calculus reform and others funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education in the United States and the Western Protocol in Canada. The information and insights gained through federally-funded projects are essential to the advancement of mathematics. Because curricular materials take years to evolve, be tested, and be refined, it is difficult (or impossible) to find financial support for them at the local, state, or commercial level during the developmental stages. We must work together to ensure federal funding and continued support for mathematics education in order to produce high-quality research-based programs and materials.

With the above agreements, it is time for other positive steps to be taken together for the future of students. Instead of digging in for more arguments, as concerned mathematics educators and mathematicians, let's find those positive steps and build on them.

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