Fisking Fennell

Yesterday I put up a link to Skip Fennell’s (PDF) “Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System”; some remarks follow. Fennell is President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; his remarks of October 10 were addressed to the (US) House Science and Technology Committee. “STEM” abbreviates the fields of study mentioned in the title.

Most of the testimony appears to have been designed to look like empty bureaucratic blather … but if you’ve learned the code words, some of it’s actually sort of horrifying. The entire document is only eight double-spaced pages, so it’s tempting to copy it out altogether. I’m going to fight this temptation, but—since it is so short—I won’t bother to cite page numbers. The passages appear in their natural order; Fennell’s stuff is (obviously) in boldface. I’m going to play it pretty fast and loose with capitalization and punctuation despite my best instincts since I don’t know how to make the WordPress editor keep from messing it up if I do it right.

NCTM believes that creating a coherent STEM curriculum and placing a well-qualified, highly effective teacher in every STEM classroom are critical goals[.] “Coherent” is the big idea here: the current incoherence is widely blamed on local control by school boards. “Every…classroom” is the type of wild exaggeration one learns to expect; apparently this kind of thing annoys only me. But I’ll mention “highly effective teacher”: it’s the famous Lake Wobegon effect. If “highly” is to mean anything at all, then only a minority of teachers can be “highly qualified”. In a national system where every local school board is empowered to decide what is taught and who does the teaching in every classroom, there are daunting, but not insurmountable, challenges to achieving these goals. I believe Fennell is pre-emptively excusing the inevitable failure of the Council (whose creation he’s advocating) to bring about any substantial change in (what all sides seem to agree is) the disaster that is American Math Ed. Moreover, I believe that he doesn’t even really want to bring such changes about; the status quo is working perfectly well for him (and NCTM).

As members of the National Science Board … have noted, a child’s first—and perhaps most—infulential teacher is a parent. Any call to action—small or large—must recognize the crucial role that parents play … Without parental support and involvement, it will be very difficult to convince young people of the urgency and importance of STEM literacy … This might look like empty piety, or just another pre-emptive excuse for “failing” at making changes, but this post in KTM nails it: the current system, by design, fails to instill basic math skills in most of the victims students; parents who are determined to have educated children must resort to other resources to accomplish what is ostensibly the mission of the public schools. Let me qualify that; “by design” is my interpolation and shouldn’t be attributed to Barry G. or anyone else at KTM; most of ’em probably don’t even believe it [yet]. Anyhow, it appears that Mr. Fennell likes having things this way and isn’t even going to pretend to try to change it.

Just as parents must do their part, educators and lawmakers must do what we can to reach beyond the “best and “brightest” students … it is important that we truly reach all students and meaningfully address the persistent problem of achievement gaps in education. Addressing “achievement gaps” sounds like a good thing until one comes to find out that the approach favored by “reformers” like Fennell is to lower the high end of achievement rather than raising the low end.

(…The “National Action Plan” is introduced…) Implementing all aspects of the plan could produce significant—and, more important—enduring, change in STEM education … Wow. Does he mean to have admitted that he’d rather have enduring but insignificant change than significant but fleeting change? Probably not; usually in politics you have to look at the opposite of what somebody says to find out what they really think … Time and again, research has shown that the most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher. “Research” presumably deserves the usual squarequotes (I used to subscribe to the NCTM’s Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, so I know what I’m talking about here). We endorse all efforts to ensure that students are taught by well-qualified and highly effective teachers. While working tirelessly to ensure that teachers continue to be pushed around by clueless timeservers to ensure that most of the best will soon quit. Thanks for your endorsement.

All teachers must understand how students learn mathematics. The must know how to plan, conduct, and assess the effectiveness of mathematics lessons … invest in the particular culture of their students and school … dedicate time and energy both inside and outside the classroom .. are adept at actively engaging students of diverse backgrounds and strengths … I don’t tell you what to invest in, buddy. More to the point, the “diversity” card here refers to the technique of forbidding schools to separate out the better-prepared students for higher-level lessons. My sources tell me that this strategy (for learning-prevention) is working quite well. This seems like as good a time as any to mention that setting up high ideals as if they were actually part of one’s job description is a classic management technique for blaming workers when the system fails. The “best” examples occur when ideals are in conflict; for example,
“grade inflation is bad” but “low pass rates are worse”. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

OK. Burning out. The rest, for now anyhow, is left as an exercise. Back to reading everybody’s else’s stuff.


  1. the frank allen post at MC i was actually looking for is here;
    the one i found first serves just as well, but now that i’ve got it …

  2. SusanS

    Wow, v. That is a keeper.

    I need to memorize some sections for when people irritate me on this subject, or in case I run into Slick Skip.

  3. But I’ll mention “highly effective teacher”: it’s the famous Lake Wobegon effect. If “highly” is to mean anything at all, then only a minority of teachers can be “highly qualified”.

    I disagree with that. If we were talking about “top teachers” then, yes, I’d agree with you. But “highly qualified” does not have to be in comparison to other teachers. Highly qualified might mean meeting some particular quality threshhold, which, in theory, every teacher-to-be could be expected to meet in order to gain their qualification to teach STEM classes.

    I agree with you about achievement gaps, mostly. There will always be achievement gaps due to inherent “ability gaps”. However, there are students who are not given the tools and the education they require to meet their potential. And in those cases, where achievement gaps exist even where potential is equal, it is important to bring up the bottom to close those gaps. Of course, the idea of doing this by avoiding ability/readiness/need-based grouping is absurd. In closing achievement gaps, we commit a grave and devastating wrong when we hold back our “best and brightest” — they too deserve to be given the tools and education required to meet their potential.

  4. This is only tangentially on topic, but I was wondering if you saw this Cognitive Daily post on using manipulatives for teaching grade school math? There is some interesting back-and-forth in the comments, with some people strongly in favor and others equally strongly opposed.

    The thing that caught my eye was that the blog post cited research in support of using manipulatives. I haven’t tried to look at any of the references, so I have no idea how convincing they might or might not be. The cited research appeared in education journals or books; I think I would be a little more interested in looking at basic research on learning math that has appeared in psychology journals (if such research exists).

  5. The thing about math ed research – it’s almost all lousy. Sample sizes are small, methods are questionable, controls are not controls. How people who know anything about math can put together studies like this…

    I think mathmom is right about “highly qualified.” I think it means fully certified, with credits in the right content area.

    But beyond that, I’m with you. The NCTM has been an administrators’ and professional developers’ organization, not a teachers’ organization, and captive to the reformers, for several decades, at least.

    I quit years ago (keep up membership in my state math org, I think I need to renew my city math org membership, and I buy one of the MAA journals – the easy-to-read edition)


  6. mathmom & jd: okay.
    there can be no “high” without a “low” …
    but that “low” need not be “other teachers”.
    fair enough. for that matter, it needn’t be
    “other teachers *at a particular time*”,
    so, e.g., it would make sense to say
    teachers in the future should be h.q.
    compared to the present crop. etcetera.
    i put it too strongly.

    kurt: thanks for bringing _cognitive_daily_
    to my attention. looks like it could be
    pretty interesting.

    & susan: “memorize” this stuff?
    wow, thanks! that’s some high praise!

  1. 1 Worth a look (16 Oct 2007) « Rolfe Schmidt

    […] Fisks Fennell, president of the NCTM. bureaucrats have their own insidious code, but v. does a good job at […]

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