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U.S. Asks Panel to Add It Up

15 May 2006 (All day)

University of Texas

"Honest broker."
Larry Faulkner will chair the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

Seventeen mathematicians, cognitive scientists, and math educators were named today to a presidentially appointed panel that, in the words of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, is supposed to tell U.S. math teachers "what's most effective in the classroom." The answer to that seemingly innocuous question has divided the mathematics community for a decade, although in recent months, there have been signs that the rift is beginning to heal.

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel is intended to feed into a proposed $250-million mathematics initiative by the Bush Administration aimed at giving elementary school students a strong foundation in math and boosting the abilities of middle school students who have fallen behind (Science, 10 February, p. 762). The initiative emphasizes algebra as the key to educational success and so will the panel, says its chair, Larry Faulkner, a chemist and president emeritus of the University of Texas, Austin. "As I understand our charge," says Faulkner, now head of the $1.6 billion Houston Endowment, a private philanthropy, "the president wants the best advice on promoting student readiness for algebra and higher-level courses. Algebra is a tremendously important gateway course, but our success rates are not very good."

Faulkner calls himself an "honest broker" in the debate and jokes that he was chosen "as someone with credentials in education and with the ability to massage egos." The panel, which will begin meeting next week, includes several prominent players from both sides of the ongoing debate over whether recent curricular reforms provide students with enough mathematical rigor while also fostering a deeper understanding of the subject.

One camp is represented by two professional mathematicians--Harvard's Wilfried Schmid and Hung-His Wu of the University of California, Berkeley--who have been vocal critics of the reforms. The other camp's roster includes Francis "Skip" Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the nation's leading math education organization, which has championed many of those reforms, and math educator Deborah Loewenberg Ball of the University of Michigan. But Ball and Schmid are also members of a small group that has pushed to find common ground between the reformers and their critics. The panel's vice chair is Camilla Benbow, an educational psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who co-directs a longitudinal study of gifted math students.

Spellings says she hopes the panel's initial recommendations, due in January, will be a boon to teachers "who don't know where to find information on the best available practices." The commission also has the authority to order up research on related topics before submitting its final report in February 2008. While Faulkner doesn't rule out that possibility, he says, "I think quite a lot of work has already been done."

For more in depth coverage of the controversy over reforming mathematics education, stay tuned for the 19 May issue of Science.

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