## 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.*