# Creativity, social justice are prime themes at math roundtable

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.

I thought we attended the same meeting, but apparently we saw different things. It seemed clear to me that the primary themes were creating challenging courses and modes of study that are not hindered by wasteful repetition of topics from one year to the next, and the importance of assessing student mastery at least every year so that every student can be moved along at an optimal pace.

What Bob Moses said wasn’t in conflict with this and he did focus on mathematics education as a civil right. I don’t believe anyone disagreed with this, but saying that “social justice” was a prime theme at this meeting seems like a bit of a stretch. Far more significant was the focus on how to best achieve academic excellence in all students. Concerns about equity are valid, but they should not derail the larger goal of elevating expectations and ensuring that all students are challenged in accordance with their needs and interests.

I was thrilled at the turnout at this Roundtable meeting. It seems clear that parents and teachers and students all want more focus on mathematics education in the Cambridge Public Schools. I believe they understand that as students develop mastery of mathematics, they will also perform better at many other subjects.

Robert is correct. There were other themes at the meeting, and I actually intended to note the one about repetition in classes — including an anecdote about the kid who didn’t want to go to class until Thanksgiving because, in his experience, until that date instruction time was spent rehashing what had been learned the previous year. (Another good one was about how it was best to skip math textbooks every other year, for much the same reason.)

In the piece above, some themes of the event got lost because I felt it was getting very long; others just got lost because they got lost, meaning the one I just described. But, yes, sometimes people do note different things from the same event, and to an extent that’s what happened Tuesday night. (I am also suffering from an illness I cannot seem to shake, and while that shouldn’t really play a role in reporting, it also seemed beyond me at the time to make this story even longer or go in and rework it.)

The “social justice” theme popped up a few times in comments about tracking, but mainly it looms large because Moses himself seemed to. First, because of the impact he’d had on people at the meeting; second, because he spoke at such length.

But, as I say, Robert’s take is at least as valid as what I wrote.

My question would be how many CPS math teachers attended this? It sounds like this was just a School Committee-driven event. Unless teachers are involved, this has little chance of affecting what goes on in the classroom.

Mayor Maher asked for a show of hands, and there were many CPS staff in the audience as well as parents.

The math roundtable stirred up my emotions from teaching college level chemistry to mostly students aspiring to go to medical school. The weakest students were mostly racial minority. I learned to give the first test very early in the semester to identify folks with missing math skills. I remember one student crying in my office, “But I always got A’s in math!” The missing skills had been taught in my 8th grade algebra class way back when, so I was shocked.

Now my daughter will be entering 8th grade, and she too won’t be learning 8th grade algebra in Cambridge. After the roundtable I’m ready to hire a math teacher to cover 8th grade algebra as a before or after school class. Any math teachers out there who want to teach a small group of 8th graders?

My understanding is that many students take two blocks of math, or 1/4 of their course load, in 9th grade. Our K-8 schools offer fewer electives for middle school students, and they have more time for math class than other nearby districts, yet they are behind in math by 9th grade, and have to again spend more time in math class rather than finally get a chance to take advantage of more electives.

I’d love to see a follow up math discussion that focused on the curriculum in Cambridge, and looked diligently at the hours of math instruction from grades 6-9 or 6-10 and figured out if the outcome and expectations were adequate. Tutoring for weak students should also be a part of the discussion.