How Reflexive Partisanship Has Undermined Math Education

Barry Garelick, a veteran educator and author, is one of the nation’s savviest observers of math education. Earlier this year, I wrote about his most recent book, Out on Good Behavior, and regular readers have encountered his occasional guest posts. Well, prompted by Liz Cheney’s brave role in the January 6 Committee, Barry recently wrote me to share some reflections about his time working on Capitol Hill when Cheney’s mom, Lynne Cheney, encountered steadfast partisanship in the disputes over math education. I found Barry’s take timely and evocative and thought I’d share it with you.

— Rick

Like many people, I have been watching the January 6 Committee hearings. I have been struck by an irony that is particular to my own experience with ideology, politics, and partisanship as it applies to (wait for it) math education. Allow me to explain.

Liz Cheney has demonstrated her belief that the Constitution, and the oath public servants take to defend it, takes precedence over partisanship. What I find ironic about this goes back to my experience with the world of math education in which another Cheney — Lynne Cheney, Liz’s mother — was speaking out against what she saw as the sorry state of math education in the U.S. and was also confronted by partisanship.

I learned of Lynne Cheney’s involvement with math education in 2002 during a six-month assignment in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D, Ore.) while working for a federal agency in D.C. I was tasked with investigating what was going on in K-12 math education. I had extensive conversations with various mathematicians who were concerned with how math was currently being taught (referred to as “fuzzy math”) and was advised to follow what Lynne was saying about math education.

She was greatly respected by the (mostly) Democratic mathematicians with whom I had been speaking. She criticized the recent changes in instructional methods of teaching math which had been implicitly embedded in standards written by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989 and revised in 2000. In a nutshell, the new standards discouraged memorization and were focused on having students “understand” math, rather than just “doing” math — as traditionally taught math is often mischaracterized.

The philosophy behind NCTM’s standards is at the root of what is called reform math. Central to reform math is the fixation on understanding and that it must come before learning the standard procedures lest the latter eclipse the conceptual underpinning of what makes the procedure work. The result has been confusion as students learn convoluted and inefficient strategies prior to learning the standard method. (More detail on this and related issues discussed here.)

Lynne Cheney championed traditionally taught math fundamentals along with the ways of reform math. While I was working on the Hill, she moderated a forum on math education, which was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Two members of the panel were also opposed to the direction math education was taking. They both held Lynne in great regard, were not politically conservative, and did not care what her party affiliation was.

Critical to me at the time was the National Science Foundation’s role. NSF had awarded millions of dollars in grants for the writing of math textbooks that embraced NCTM’s standards and philosophy of math education.

Since Wyden was on a committee that had oversight of NSF, I thought it important to convey this information to Hill staffers involved in education. But when I started describing the situation to someone who worked for another senator on this same oversight committee, she responded with, “You sound like Lynne Cheney.”

The staffers in Wyden’s office reacted similarly. They had already heard from other Democratic staffers that it would be wise to stay away from the “fuzzy math/Lynne Cheney/Bush agenda” issue.

The result was that Wyden was never briefed on how (and excuse me for the phrase to follow) “the big lie” about math education was being perpetuated and implemented through the auspices of the NSF and taxpayer money. In short, Democrats didn’t want to take up an ideology embraced by Republicans.

Years passed, but the arguments about math education remained static. And in 2009, along came the Common Core State Standards for Math. These were initiated and promoted under the Obama administration and therefore were viewed through the partisan lens as Democrat-begotten. Eventually most of the nation, with the exception of five states, adopted the standards due to strong federal financial incentives.

The standards threw gasoline on the ideological fire that had been raging since the early 1990s over how to teach math. The math standards essentially codified NCTM’s reform-math ideology by embedding what Tom Loveless (formerly of Brookings Institution) calls the “dog whistles” of math reform — words like “understand,” “explain,” and “visualize.”

Implementation of the Common Core math standards in the form of textbooks and training teachers via professional-development vendors has been a Pavlovian-like response to those dog whistles. Students are asked to explain — often in writing — how they solved a problem, in addition to showing their work. If students do not solve a problem in more than one way, they are deemed to lack “understanding.” They are also made to use cumbersome strategies for basic arithmetic operations. (An example of this is provided in testimony given by a parent before the Arkansas state board of education.)

Today, the partisan nature of what should be a nonpartisan issue continues. Some states — such as Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio to name a few — with Republican governors ordered Common Core’s standards to be replaced. The replacements, however, are essentially the same standards under a different name with only slight changes in wording. The issues that existed under the original standards have remained. The governors who ordered a stop to the Common Core standards point to the so-called revisions and replacements and boast that they rid their states of the Democratic-infused standards.

The bottom line: The politics surrounding the mischaracterization of traditionally taught math continues as it has for the past few decades. In the meantime, textbooks and teachers maintain the ineffective teaching methods of math fundamentals, such as convoluted and inefficient strategies in lieu of standard algorithms and procedures all in the name of “deeper understanding.” Parents continue to complain about their kids’ math class.

Not much has changed since the days when Lynne Cheney was making the rounds 20 or so years ago. Maybe after Liz is through with her January 6 hearings, she can carry on where Lynne left off with the message that math, like an oath to the Constitution, should be independent of political baggage.

Barry Garelick is a veteran educator and author of several books on math education, including his most recent, Out on Good Behavior: Teaching math while looking over your shoulder. Garelick, who worked in environmental protection for the federal government before entering the classroom, has also written articles on math education for publications including The Atlantic, Education Next, Nonpartisan Education Review, and Education News.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.