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The National Mathematics Advisory Panel

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel-Commentary

By Victor Katz

The first meeting of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel took place on May 22 at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC. The panel has seventeen members and is chaired by Larry Faulkner, President of the Houston Endowment and President Emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin. Some of the panelists should be familiar to members of the MAA, including Deborah Ball of the University of Michigan, Liping Ma of the Carnegie Foundation, Francis "Skip" Fennell, the President of the NCTM, and two research mathematicians, Wilfried Schmid of Harvard and Hung-Hsi Wu of the University of California, Berkeley, who have been vocal critics of recent reforms in mathematics education. Other panelists are Vern Williams, a middle school mathematics teacher from Fairfax, Virginia who was a 1994 Sliffe award winner and has had great success in developing Mathcounts teams, Jim Simons, a 1976 winner of the AMS Veblen Prize in Geometry who is now the president of Renaissance Technologies Corporation, a very successful investment firm using mathematical strategies, five professors of psychology or human development, three educational consultants, and a former California elementary school principal whose school saw great gains in standardized test scores in reading and mathematics under her leadership. It is surprising, perhaps, that Professor Wu is the only member of the MAA on the panel. And, although most of the panelists have made contributions toward mathematics education in their professional lives, it is also curious that the panel failed to include even one expert elementary teacher of mathematics.

As was made abundantly clear in the opening public meeting by several of the ex-officio members of the panel from the White House and the Department of Education, the goal of the panel is to examine the research literature on the teaching of mathematics, determine which studies are "rigorous" and scientifically-based" rather than "anecdotal", suggest possible avenues for additional research, and craft recommendations that will "inform the future." Of course, the criteria for determining whether or not a study is "rigorous" were not specified. Nevertheless, the NMP is charged with investigating studies in at least the following five areas:

(1) the critical skills and skill progressions for students to acquire competence in algebra and readiness for higher levels of mathematics;

(2) the role and appropriate design of standards and assessment in promoting mathematical competence;

(3) the process by which students of various abilities and backgrounds learn mathematics;

(4) instructional practices, programs, and materials that are effective for improving mathematics learning; and

(5) the training, selection, placement, and professional development of teachers of mathematics in order to enhance students learning of mathematics.

The panel members spent some time at their meeting discussing the meaning of these five categories, and it was clear that there is a great diversity of opinion among the group. Numerous questions for study were brought up, ranging from "what do we mean by algebra?" to "is pattern recognition in the early grades an important pre-algebraic skill?"; from "what is the relationship of teacher Praxis scores to their students' achievement?" to "what is the evidence for the effectiveness of particular commercial textbooks?";from "is ability grouping constructive or destructive?" to "how can we keep mathematics teachers in the teaching profession?."

The NMP is planning to divide itself initially into four sub-panels, who will separately deal with items 1, 3, 4, and 5 in the list above. They may schedule public hearings and invite testimony from concerned individuals or organizations. But in any case they will be interested in hearing from mathematics educators at various levels. To find out more information about the panel and to contact it, go to http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/mathpanel/index.html.

It should be noted that a similar committee with a similar charge, the Committee on Mathematics Learning (CML), was established in 1998 by the National Research Council at the request of the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. Three years later, that committee produced its report: Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics (Washington: National Academy Press), a 454-page book containing numerous serious recommendations for mathematics education, based on a multitude of research results. (See the review on MAA Reviews.) Interestingly, Professors Ball and Wu were members of the CML and authors of its final report. Among the CML's recommendations were:

(1) All students should become mathematically proficient. That is, they should possess conceptual understanding, skill in carrying out procedures accurately and appropriately, the ability to formulate and solve mathematical problems, the capacity for logical thought, and the habitual inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful, and worthwhile.

(2) Instruction should not be based on extreme positions that students learn solely by internalizing what a teacher or book says or solely by inventing mathematics on their own.

(3) Schools should support, as a central part of teacher's work, engagement in sustained efforts to improve their mathematics instruction. This support requires the provision of time and resources.

(4) Efforts to improve students' mathematics learning should be informed by scientific evidence, and their effectiveness should be evaluated systematically. Such efforts should be coordinated, continual, and cumulative.

These recommendations, and others, were fleshed out with numerous examples drawn from educational research studies. These studies include details on what children know about numbers by the time they arrive in pre-K and the implications for mathematics instruction and details on the processes by which students acquire mathematical proficiency with whole numbers, rational numbers, and integers, as well as beginning algebra, geometry, measurement, and probability and statistics. The committee noted, however, that there were many unanswered questions about mathematics learning that remained to be answered by further studies.

How the recommendations of the NMP will differ from those of the CML remain to be seen.

Victor Katz is a well-known historian of mathematics, author of several books and articles, including the well-known survey A History of Mathematics. He has long been interested in mathematics education.

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