Someone commented recently that she maybe she was too young and naive at the time but she didn’t recall so much controversy resulting from the publication of the 1989 NCTM Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. What follows is in part my reply and resulting reflections.
No, there wasn’t so much controversy at first. It took a few years for various projects, many sponsored by NSF grants, to create and publish programs that were supposed to reflect the NCTM Standards. One elementary program that was the source of a great deal of hostility in California, called MATHLAND, I never saw, but I did step into many firefights that involved Californians who loathed it (and I advise taking the information I’ve linked to at Wikipedia regarding MATHLAND with a few grains of salt).
Was it as bad as they claim? I don’t really know. Given some of the people involved in the blanket attacks against it, I must remain skeptical: many have shown themselves to be, to my mind, extremely narrow people who just seem to loathe anything and everything connected with the NCTM Standards, reform math teaching, etc., (though I’m not ruling out the possibility that some of these criticisms had merit).
Some of these people went on to form or join anti-progressive math groups and organizations: Mathematically Correct and HOLD (an acronym for “Honest, Open, Logical Debate,” which I found to be extremely ironic) are the two best-known. Eventually, HOLD seemed to fade as its New York city cousin, NY-HOLD, rose. There were a lot of folks involved in both groups and they mostly seemed to know one another. It seems that the Mathematically Correct site isn’t online anymore and they stopped adding new material years ago. However, it’s still possible to find archival links to it The NYC-HOLD site is still around, though seemingly way out of date (there’s no mention of Common Core on the main page, and nothing new since 2007). I helped start a web site intended to provide a progressive viewpoint on mathematics education, humorously titled MathematicallySane.com, which, while much less active in recent years, has been updated within the last year or so.
Nonetheless, many of the big names affiliated with these groups still show up nationally, most notably R. James Milgram and Ze’ev Wurman. The first is an emeritus professor of mathematics from Stanford. The second is an electrical engineer, originally from Israel, I believe, who isn’t a mathematician but has been mistakenly identified as one on at least one educationally and politically conservative web site that is VERY anti-Common Core. And there are some other figures from those groups who pop up in the media, are quoted on various Facebook and other pages. I have recently seen a link on a conservative-dominated FB group page to an article from 2002 about a summit meeting held in DC by a The American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank. I read it back then, and seeing it recently brought back a lot of anger and frustration. The coverage was SO biased against progressive math teaching, going so far as to put the alleged opinions of NCTM officials in the mouths of their opponents (that is, their opponents were supposed to be quoting them, but were definitely not being fair or accurate in what they claimed was said/believed). This paragraph is a particularly egregious example:
Venturing below surface disagreements about emphasis, McKeown said misconceptions about math education based on generalizations about race and sex are “less flattering.” He quoted former NCTM president Jack Price as saying that traditional methods of teaching math are adequate for “Anglo males” of relatively high socioeconomic status but that women and minority groups do not learn the same way. McKeown represented the NCTM’s philosophy in this way: High-status white males (and Asians of both sexes) learn math best deductively in competitive environments, while minorities and non-Asian women learn math best inductively in collaborative environments.
These are tactics we’ve seen conservatives and the media employ for decades. And certainly by the mid-1990s, there were both these big national groups and smaller local ones that were fighting tooth and nail against not so much the NCTM Standards volumes themselves as against different programs like Everyday Math (K-5), TERC Investigations (K-5), Connected Math (6-8), Core-Plus Math (9-12), CPM (9-12), IMP (9-12), and other progressive textbook series, while touting first Saxon Math (which I abhor), and then later Singapore Math (which until recently only went through 5th grade). Some liked the old Mary P. Dolciani high school books, while others criticized those for their alleged roots in the New Math projects of the late 1950s.
What was clear, however, was that they didn’t like the philosophical and pedagogical principles that informed progressive math education. They didn’t like teaching or learning that entailed “investigations,” “discovery,” “guided discovery,” small group work, open-ended problems or assessments, writing in math class, calculator use (particularly in lower grades), and much else. Often, all of these things got lumped together as “constructivism,” which quite frankly I believe to this day many of those who used that term as an epithet never bothered to try to understand. I suggested that it was their favorite attack word because it was long, started with a ‘c’, and ended in “-ism.” I’m still of that opinion. And the other terms they liked were insulting – “fuzzy math,” “Rainforest algebra,” “New-new Math,” “fuzzy crap,” and many others that used to be all available on a “glossary page” on the Mathematically Correct web site. It was seeing that page that particularly convinced me that these were some very screwy and nasty people.
What does any of this have to do with the Common Core Standards for mathematics (CCSSM)? Simple. The main document for CCSSM is made up of Practice Standards and Content Standards. It is the former that explains in many ways why the old guard of Mathematically Correct and NYC-HOLD opposes the Common Core (though not all do. UC-Berkeley mathematician, H. H. Wu, has published quite a few articles in support of CCSSM in the past few years, and I’ve been told that prominent NCTM critic and University of Wisconsin mathematician, Dick Askey, has also been favorable towards CSSSM. At the same time, one-time close ally of Mathematically Correct and NYC-HOLD, E. D. Hirsch, has championed the Common Core literacy standards (in no small part because he feels that align well with his Core Knowledge Foundation’s ideas about literacy education), while Sandra Stotsky has remained an outspoken critic of the entire Common Core package).
Looking closely at the CCSSM Practice Standards and the NCTM Process Standards from the 2000 PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES for SCHOOL MATHEMATICS (my link is to a free site for the Arlington, VA public schools, but the content is the same).
CCSSM Practice Standards NCTM PSSM Process Standards
1) Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. Problem Solving
2) Reason abstractly and quantitatively. Communication
3) Construct viable arguments & critique the reasoning of others. Reasoning and Proof
4) Model with mathematics. Connections
5) Use appropriate tools strategically. Representations
6) Attend to precision.
7) Look for and make use of structure.
8) Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
Of course, I’m not suggesting a one-to-one correspondence (I may support fuzzy math, but I know that 8 items won’t map onto 5 or vice versa in a one-to-one manner. Looking at more detailed descriptions for each item in the two lists will likely make clear to many readers that there is a great deal of influence on the first one (CCSSM) by the second, published 13 years ago and influenced by NCTM publications going back at least to 1989.
It is also in some of those details that some of the strongest objections from anti-progressives originate. Indeed, someone with a reasonable familiarity with the teaching and learning of mathematics who had somehow missed the Math Wars entirely and was not yet versed in the fights over CCSSM might well wonder what there is to object to about either list.
I have offered various ideas about what evokes such strong dislike in many educationally/politically-conservative circles. However, this may be an appropriate place to stop and allow people to weigh in, regardless of their previous involvement in the Math Wars (or lack thereof). Why are many conservative groups recycling old articles, old epithets, and old objections to CCSSM that appear to have little to do with the Content Standards (of course, there are plenty of objections to the Content Standards, some of which I share, and to specific alleged implementations of the overall CCSSM (though I have argued repeatedly that it’s extremely dicey to conflate the Content Standards, the Practice Standards, or the overall CCSSM documents with any specific math textbook or program (even though it’s also very easy to do just that)?
I’m hoping for input from many people on this issue. And I expect to post something in short order in which I will be requesting help from readers who may be able to help me understand better the ideas of a few contemporary authors about education.