Thursday, July 18, 2024

While it brought together six math educators with broadly diverging viewpoints, there were intriguing overlaps in what they discussed Tuesday at a School Committee roundtable — a chance to hear ideas and spark debate, rather than to vote policy.

An example: In noting how teachers can truly engage students by getting a whole class to talk over a mathematical concept, Boston University professor Suzanne Chapin said:

There are things that are rather complex that, when we probe into them, we find students in a classroom may be proficient in a formula but actually have very little understanding of it.

Which had an interesting echo of the previous speaker, Anne Collins, the director of math and a professor at Lesley University, who described teaching student from the university’s Art Institute of Boston as well as those more committed to book learning. She said:

My students that were in the Art Institute of Boston were very facile in solving [math] problems and could do multiple representations depending on what the problem was. And I had a student who complained to me, she said, ‘I was in the advanced classes in my high school and got a 5 on my Advanced Placement calculus exam, why is this so hard?’ She said, ‘All I had to do in my calculus was to memorize formulas and plug in the numbers and I always got the right answers, and that’s how I got a 5 on my AP calculus exam.’ She said, ‘No one taught me how to think. This problem-solving course is the hardest course I’ve ever had.’

It was a theme summed up by Mary Eich, a Newton educator and member of a state math advisory board, who complained of students who have “all these skills that are sitting around disconnected.”

“We really have to think about putting the thinking back in math,” Eich said.

Another thread that made its way through the roughly two-hour City Hall event, which drew a crowd split about equally between educators and parents, led back to Harvard-educated Dr. Robert Moses, whose notoriety locally is that he founded The Algebra Project at the King Open School — first coaching his children in math at home, then other pupils while volunteering in the classroom before using his MacArthur Foundation Fellowship to launch a full-fledged, multiyear math education program using Harvard students. The impact was broad. School Committee member Richard Harding said Moses had practically raised him; the program inspired King graduates to start their own math education effort; and Eich said Moses had been her inspiration to start teaching in her 30s.

But Moses has other claims to fame, including his time as field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Tuesday he connected knowledge of math with social justice. While in Mississippi registering black voters, he recalled:

I was on the witness stand in 1963 in Greenville, and the courthouse is packed with sharecroppers that we had taken down to register, and we had gotten arrested. And a judge, Judge Clayton, looks over at me and he wants to know, ‘Why are you taking illiterates down to register to vote?’ … in the 1960s we were working with sharecroppers who were the serfs of our industrial society, and they couldn’t read or write. We’re raising serfs now in our cities, our young people who are graduating with the equivalent of an eighth-grade education. … If the information age is requiring a level of quantitative literacy that puts mathematics on the table just like reading and writing was put on the table during the industrial age, then we have to make sure the kids get this math.

He recounted a tale of another judge, this time in New York City, who more recently resisted improving education standards by saying the state’s constitution requires only that people be able to serve on juries and vote, and both those things could be done with an eighth-grade education. “There are a lot of low-paying jobs, and some people are going to have to fill them, so they don’t need the kind of education you’re talking about,” Moses said, quoting the judge.

“We got Jim Crow out of the right to vote, we didn’t get it out of education,” Moses said.

He still sees educational achievement affected by race and class, and other educators looked critically Tuesday over the ways schools systems “track” students, meaning putting them on educational tracks as advanced, average or slow learners.

That tracking is also put in place by society — by misconceptions that some people have a natural predisposition toward math and others simply lack the ability — was another near-universal theme of the math educators. But it’s a myth; in Asian countries that excel in math skills, students cite their hard work, not natural ability, Eich said.

Nat Stahl talked about ways he’d found to overcome such branding while working with The Math Circle, a nonprofit organization teaching youth outside school and inmates at the Suffolk County House of Correction, and at the same time tied in what others had been saying about using discussion of mathematical concepts to make them come alive. He was perpetually surprised to hear questions asked by his students, especially the young ones, he said, and delighted by the results of exploring those questions. “Kids will ask you questions you can never in a million years predict,” he said. “The Math Circle is able to do some surprisingly advanced things with some surprisingly young kids … because we treat math as a creative endeavor.”

He finds the same abilities in his student inmates, and told the crowd about a recent prison session about the Pythagorean theorem.

One of the caseworkers walked by and kind of poked in, and said, “Isn’t that a bit advanced for them?”

I said, “Yeah, but they don’t know that.”

That anecdote was particularly powerful for Carolyn Turk, the district’s deputy superintendent, and she cited it when asked to find meaning in the event. She was only one of dozens of people who lingered after the event, talking in small groups about what she’d heard. She also was struck by the themes that sounded throughout the night, whether in the guest educators’ opening talks, in response to questions from committee members or in the sharp exchange at the end of the event between Moses, Eich and Harvard professor Wilfried Schmid, a member of the National Math Advisory Panel.

To visiting Lesley University students such as junior Meaghan Chadwick, the debate between the hard-edged Schmid and his peers was a good example of the “math wars,” in which mathematicians tout procedure and math teachers promote context.

Teachers such as Ann Marie Varella, of the Tobin School, liked the glimpse the forum gave parents of their work, as well as the speakers’ inspiring ideas. And she nodded agreement when Janet Goldman, of the Peabody School, appreciated that with the roundtable, “the administrators, the teachers and parents are all trying to frame mathematics education as being important — pivotal, as important as literacy. It’s a long time overdue.”

One thing the roundtable was not: a chance to ask committee members or others how the district was faring on math education. But amid all the math warring, parent (and husband of committee member Patty Nolan) David Rabkin said he was glad to hear a question by member Fred Fantini about how to measure the value of math education in Cambridge schools.

“This is the beginning — I hope the beginning — of an open conversation about all the dimensions of what we mean by performance,” Rabkin said.

The hope there was more conversation to come was seconded by Susan Matkoskin, a Baldwin parent.

“There were a lot of issues raised, but very few questions answered,” she said.