NCSM/NCTM Annual Conf, Dept.

Every year the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has its annual conference, complete with celeb speakers, vendor booths, instructional seminars, and the usual array of topics that pass for effective practices.

From what I hear from a friend who teaches high school math, this year’s was no different.  Her report follows below:

I signed up for a pre-conference workshop on teaching math for social justice.  They made the accusation that colleges of education exacerbate the problem of achievement gap for minorities.  I asked an ed-school professor (maybe from Connecticut) what her school did to alleviate this problem.  Her answer sounded awfully general, so I asked her to give me one, explicit example of a topic they teach that would work toward alleviating social injustice in schools. Her example was that, oh, you can teach students that a comma can mean the same thing as a decimal point in other countries. Of course, this is not what they are talking about at all, so she missed the point. 
They made us do this activity where three siblings were going to give a party for their father’s 70th birthday.  One made something like $20,000 a month; another made $6,000 a month, and the third — a single mother with two children — made $3000 a month.  The sibling making $20,000 a month thought they should split the $4500 cost of the party equally.  Another sibling suggested amounts that are proportional to their salaries.  We were supposed to converse (in groups, of course!!) what is “fair.”  Of course, it launched into a huge discussion about missing information, such as the one who makes $20,000 a month may have a spouse with a disease that requires  a $5000 shot each month, so in other words, were weren’t told about their disposable incomes or other circumstances.  After about 20 minutes, we still hadn’t settled in on anything other than the proportional one.
My issue is this:  I think that MANY kids don’t know how to compute what would be proportional to the incomes in the first place, so why impose all of that drama on it? 
I also attended a session of which Phil Daro was a co-presenter, but had to leave right before he was on stage.  His partner, Kyle Pearce, didn’t know beans about math. Their big thing was about this photo of 5 reams of copy paper stacked against a concrete block wall, and how many reams would it take to reach the ceiling.  They gave the height of the ceiling and the height of the stack of 5 reams of paper.  I divided that height by 5, and then divided the height of the ceiling by that quotient.  I did not set up a proportion at all.  One can say that I used proportional reasoning, but I didn’t need to formally set up a proportion.  I didn’t like the way they presented the solution of the problem.  Clearly, it was designed for teachers who are at middle school or lower level.
The bottom line is that it was all pretty bad.  My school district paid a few thousand dollars to send my colleague and me to this stuff.  We were there for the last day of NCSM and the first day of NCTM.  Needless to say, I was glad to get home!!

7 thoughts on “NCSM/NCTM Annual Conf, Dept.

  1. The most effective way to close the “achievement gap”, is to teach all kids basic arithmetic.

    I guess tho that wouldn’t sell many tickets. Pity the kids.


  2. Let’s see, the CCSS math slope starting from Kindergarten only targets no remediation for College Algebra at the end of 12th grade. In 7th grade, most schools define two or more tracks where the only STEM track is the one where students get to a proper algebra class in 8th grade. However, they don’t tell students and parents what has to now be done at home or with tutors to get to that track and they don’t ask us parents of the best students what we had to do. That sounds like a gap in their critical thinking and self-assessment.

    The College Board (a supporter of CCSS) is now pushing Pre-AP classes in 9th grade to magically bridge that known gap – one they allowed to happen when CCSS let K-8 grades off the hook. They talk about Pre-AP in terms of social justice, but they are the ones who helped to create that gap and no amount of Pre-AP babble in 9th grade will fix it, especially since they now have 5 traditional AP Calculus courses to cover in 4 years. So how do they hedge Pre-AP?

    “Pre-AP Algebra 1 [9th grade] focuses deeply on the concepts and skills that are most essential for college and career success, so mastery of linear relationships is a major focus of this course. Linear functions and linear equations are the basic building blocks of many advanced topics in math. Pre-AP Algebra 1 is streamlined to give students the time and space to thoroughly master these concepts and skills.”

    “streamlined to give students the time and space”? Cover less material? “Space”? Linear is emphasized and quadratic is well, streamlined out? The academic gap is bridged with BS.

    There is not a word about actually getting to the AP course in math. What they offer is anything but a deep and fast-pace catch-up course for AP Calculus. Who do they think will believe that BS? If they want to leave K-6 alone (anti-social justice), then their Pre-AP classes should be special classes in 7th and 8th grade that make up for all of the negligence and damage done in K-6. These classes need to do what some parents have to do when their CCSS “distinguished” math kids don’t make it to the top math track in 7th grade. Nobody is asking us parents what we now have to do. THEY are making this gap larger by forcing parents and tutors to do their job. I got to calculus in high school with absolutely no help from my parents. We could not do this for my math brain son. The key problem was the lack of pushing and mastery of basic knowledge and skills in K-6. They talk about balance, but they only accept responsibility (grudgingly) for CCSS level “proficiency.” Yes, those are sneer quotes.

    And if I have to watch one more Verizon commercial about creating STEM-prepared students with engagement (3D printers?), I’m going to puke.

    The gap answer is right there in plain view. Ask us parents of your best students. I will tell them about El Sistema and how the solution is not a 2+ generational and statistical problem about poverty. It’s about high individual educational opportunity and expectations starting from the earliest grades. It’s about mastery of knowledge and skills.


  3. The value of these things generally isn’t in the presentations for me. Most generally give a few ideas (after you’ve stripped out the fluff) but not much more. Avery few teach me something good. I have an avid hatred of ones that aim to “inspire” me, because I know that the next day I’ll never be able to remember what the technical bits to it were, and I’ll sometimes leave a presentation if it’s going down that route.

    I use them to talk to other teachers about how they handle important issues. So during the group discussion on dividing up costs I would sit by the most experienced or senior person and extract from them how they teach ratio — never an easy topic to teach. How they handle stroppy kids who won’t take the agreed answer of the class. How they mark answers for problems with more than one solution.

    The presentation is just a set up to get me sitting by new people and start a discussion. (The answer is that each pays the same, because humans are not Maths teachers and do not like to feel that they are imposing. But the rich one agrees to pay for the wine/band etc. The poor one might do more organising on lieu of payment. This is not a Maths problem.)

    I also tout for new staff and catch up on who’s changed jobs etc (we’re a small country). Often I meet old colleagues, so it’s good to catch up.

    Finally, if nothing else interesting is going on, I analyse exactly the issues I have with the passenger’s views. Exactly how I would change it to avoid issues — avoid falling into social discussions is a big one. So in a presentation about social justice I will be plotting exactly how social justice issues arise, so I can be sure to take out any triggers in my problems. (Lots of kids like Maths precisely because it isn’t full of difficult “soft” issues, and I don’t like to cheat them of that.)

    The last reason is so I can tick the boxes on my teacher registration for training.

    I also almost never go to presentations during school hours. I have a moral objection to losing teaching time. If teaching kids is the most important thing, then we shouldn’t volunteer to be out of the classroom. Ever.


  4. “… three siblings were going to give a party for their father’s 70th birthday.”

    …and they all came up with $4500 at a group discussion? Are we to believe that this number came up magically and is not a variable? Did the siblings come up with that fixed number without discussing how it would be paid? This problem defies common sense. It’s clearly not a math problem.

    What are they thinking? Let’s take an ordinary proportion math problem and make it into something that isn’t math? Let’s make a big deal about this and waste a lot of time so we can ignore all of the other interesting textbook homework p-set variations of proportionality and weighting factors. There is no one right answer? Um, look at Consumer Reports with all of their weighting factors. That’s what people do – translate non-exact choices into exact ones. You might disagree, but math helps you define different merit or objective functions.

    Do they think that this one problem offers some big math concept that transfers to all sorts of other problems? It does only in the sense that you need something, but I doubt they ever talk about the formal mathematical implications and generalize it into weighting functions or techniques of optimization or least-squared fitting.

    Meanwhile, traditional AP Calculus math teachers in high school keep their mouths shut and create all of the STEM students.


  5. “Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics”

    This Book is promoted with:

    “Today’s students face a future where there is an increasing need for mathematical skills in the workplace. As a high school teacher, leader, administrator, or counselor, part of your profession involves helping ensure that students are prepared for both personal and professional success.”

    [Has anyone ever seen a list of careers/degree programs and the level of math they require? Has anyone ever seen a high school that lets students know what those levels are? At best, everyone knows that you need to get to AP Calculus to keep all doors open, but what if someone wants to major in Biology or Computer Science? How about votech schools and their entry requirements. What do students have to know to become an electrician? Educational pedagogues only talk about happy math concepts and hands-on engagement fun that is supposed to transfer to all sorts of other topics without a shred of evidence.]

    “Themes include:
    Broadening the purposes for teaching high school mathematics beyond a focus on college and career readiness
    Dismantling structural obstacles that stand in the way of mathematics working for each and every student
    Implementing equitable instructional practices
    Identifying essential concepts that all high school students should learn and understand at a deep level
    Organizing the high school curriculum around these essential concepts to support students’ future personal and professional goals
    Providing key recommendations and next steps for key audiences

    Catalyzing Change engages all individuals with a stake in high school mathematics to catalyze critical conversations across groups.”

    [This talks about high school math in general. It’s not posed as leaving the AP Calculus STEM track alone, but offering other useful tracks than CCSS pseudo-algebra II and no remediation in college algebra. There is also a lot of other baggage here, such as “…beyond a focus on college and career readiness.” I would be more open to other tracks if they were geared to specific degree, career, and life paths, AND they first fixed up the low expectation, no ensured mastery in K-6.]

    This is part of what it says”

    “When schools offer different tracks for math classes the result is that some students are denied access and an equal opportunity to learn and succeed in mathematics. Tracking forces many students into learning experiences which are less engaging, less rigorous and with lower expectations for learning. These dead-end tracks are not mathematically meaningful, nor personally or professionally valuable to the student and virtually impossible to escape. In many cases placement in these lower tracks is more closely connected to race, gender, or socioeconomic status than the student’s potential to be successful in the classroom.

    … Providing each and every student with high-quality instruction and reducing teacher isolation and burnout can be achieved by balanced teaching assignments and collaborative planning and assessment.”

    [There is so much vague and funny talk here that it’s hard to know where to begin. The problem is not tracking in high school (!), but bad tracks. Since the AP Calculus track works, then they must be talking about the other tracks. However, before talking about those tracks in high school, they first have to talk about the single, no choice, K-6 track that is only at a no college remediation slope – by definition. With full inclusion, they now force and hide the tracking at home and with tutors. They encourage that tracking by asking parents to go to open houses in math and to adopt their teaching methods to become home helpers. Do they understand how astoundingly bad that is? If students are “forced” into learning experiences that are “less engaging,” then they should look in the mirror. Is this supposed to be an attack on the lower track fuzzies or an attack on those math teachers who are part of the traditional AP Calculus track path?

    There is an underlying current here of teacher math class assignment annoyance. I sure hope that this doesn’t mean that the fuzzies expect to get assigned to the top level classes so that they can ruin them too. If they just don’t like their lower track very wide ability range with low mastery of the basics, then high school is the wrong place to look in this book for a fix. If they want a discussion of these topics and the different math tracks offered, then they really have to include all stakeholders like students and parents. I won’t hold my breath. As one person once told me about K-6 teachers in math – “They are the experts.” My wife and I (and many parents) have been the targets of so many preemptive parental attacks to keep us in our place. I was dumb-struck when it first happened in Kindergarten math when the teacher presumed to instruct me on understanding.]


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