California Mathematicians Respond


In December of 1997, the California State Board of Education was moving toward final adoption of the mathematics standards for California. In an unsuccessful attempt to influence the final 11-0 vote by the Board, the faculty leaders of the academic senates of the University of California, the California State University system, and the California Community College system issued a joint statement condemning the Board's actions. Although not one of these three academic leaders is a mathematician, they implied in their statement that "the consensus position of the mathematical community" was in opposition to the Board approved mathematics standards.

In response, over 100 mathematicians -- and the list is growing -- from a broad spectrum of California's colleges and universities have endorsed an open letter sharply disagreeing with the academic senate officials. They urge recognition of "the important and positive role California's recently adopted mathematics standards can play in the education of future teachers of mathematics in the state of California."

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The open letter, along with supporting documents follows.


Dear Chancellor Reed;

Welcome to your new position as Chancellor of the California State University system. The education and certification of California's K-12 mathematics teachers is one of the many important functions of the CSU. For this reason, we believe that it is important that you have accurate information about matters relating to mathematics education in California.

We are in disagreement with the letter below signed by James Highsmith, Chair of the CSU Academic Senate, with William Scroggins, President of the CCC Academic Senate, and Sandra J. Weiss, Chair of the UC Academic Senate listed as co-authors.

The December 8, 1997 letter from these Chairs of the Academic Senates of the UC, CSU, and CCC suggests that "the consensus position of the mathematical community" is in opposition to the mathematics standards for K-12 adopted by the California Board of Education and is generally in support of the rejected draft standards written by the Academic Content and Performance Standards Commission.

It is our opinion that no such consensus exists within the mathematics community of the state of California. Most mathematicians are not familiar with any of the proposed K-12 mathematics standards and they've certainly never been polled.

If their views were solicited, we believe that most mathematicians would find serious shortcomings in the Commission's draft standards which the California Board of Education rejected. For example, the Commission standards which Drs. Highsmith, Scroggins, and Weiss described as "aligned with the Roundtable's standards" which "incorporate the best advice from the most respected faculty in our systems and in the country" fail to require K-12 students ever to master long division when the divisor has more than a single digit. According to the letter below by Academic Standards Commissioner Bill Evers, this was not merely an oversight, but rather a conscious decision on the part of the Commission.

The California Board of Education's decision to avoid stipulating teaching methods, instead focusing on appropriate mathematical content, was a wise decision considering the disparate views on pedagogy.

Good mathematics standards require mastery of both basic skills and broader mathematical concepts. We urge you to recognize the important and positive role California's recently adopted mathematics standards can play in the education of future teachers of mathematics in the state of California.

Please EMAIL your comment or endorsement.

Background Information

December 8, 1996
Mrs. Yvonne Larsen, President
State Board of Education
721 Capitol Mall, Room 532
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear President Larsen,

On behalf of the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates (ICAS) of California's institutions of public higher education, we are writing to urge the State Board of Education to reconsider the directions it is taking with its mathematics standards. You have an opportunity to select standards that will demand the basic skills, conceptual understanding, and problem solving skills that California's students need.

Since ICAS represents the faculty of UC, CSU and CCC, we are very interested in the academic preparation of students for college. ICAS recently developed the Statement on Competencies in Mathematics Expected of Entering College Students, which is a cogent description of the mathematics that students should understand and be able to do in order to be successful in college. This document has been endorsed by the faculty senates in our three systems, which would not have been possible had the document chosen an extreme or unusual position on the controversial issues of math education. Although the faculty of our three systems hold a wide range of opinion on these matters, the majority support a moderate approach to math competencies.

ICAS also participated in the development of the California Education Roundtable's (CERT) recommended high school graduation standards. These standards are consistent with the ICAS statement on math competencies, and strike an appropriate balance in approaches to math expectations. The standards incorporate the best advice from the most respected faculty in our systems and in the country. We were quite pleased when the Commission recommended to your board standards that were aligned with the Roundtable's standards. It appeared that the teachers of math in California were going to get coherent directions from both higher education and from their board of education. We were then disappointed to learn that our state board of education was selecting a vastly different direction for the state, in clear contrast to the position offered by the joint expertise of our institutions of higher education.

We are concerned about the Board's lack of open, broad based consensus-building in developing the math standards. Your choice of experts to help you write the standards reflect [sic] a traditional view of mathematics which is not broadly representative. In contrast, the ICAS competencies and the CERT standards carry the collective endorsement of the faculty and the consensus position of the mathematical community.

The world has learned much about effective mathematics standards in recent years. Other States have built upon available research, and experiments in other countries, as they have written standards that are in stark contrast to the directions that your State Board is taking. We urge you to reconsider your decision so that our State can also have math standards which truly prepare our children for a contemporary world.

[the letter is hand signed by Highsmith; the other names are listed and presumably agreed to the letter, but the letter does not have their signatures]

James Highsmith
Chair, CSU Academic Senate

William Scroggins
President, CCC Academic Senate

Sandra J. Weiss
Chair, UC Academic Senate

Text of James Highsmith's letter to Yvonne Larsen, 12/9/97

Your board committee's proposals for K-7 and 8-12 mathematics standards are at great variation from the consensus developed in California regarding mathematics education for public schools. Moreover, the truncated and closed process you have used to ignore the advice of the vast majority of math professionals and experts is antithetical to your public mission.

The faculties of California higher education endorsed mathematical standards for high school graduation that were developed under the aegis of the California Education Round Table. Broad agreement was reached with teachers, school professionals, and public members. It is troubling, to put it mildly, to think that our public representatives are now prepared to chuck that work and the work of the AB 265 Commission which aligned its standards with the Round Table's.

It is time for us to send a clear, consistent message to schools and teachers--a message that allows teachers to incorporate the best about what we have learned from around the world regarding rigorous and achievable math preparation.

I most strongly urge you to continue working on the math standards proposal with faculty appointed by the California State University, University of California, and California Community Colleges who have managed to reach agreement on what our children will need in the next millennium. The broad range of opinion has been distilled to a rigorous middle course that would allow teachers to prepare students well for the math skills and understanding [sic]. The State Board of Education should not adopt proposals that stray from that strong moderate course.

James M. Highsmith, Chair
Academic Senate, CSU

Stanford University
Palo Alto, California
December 26, 1997

For the record, the omission of long division with 2 or more digit divisors was a conscious decision. I pointed out in writing and in oral comments before the Commission that this was missing.

I cannot pretend to read the minds of all Commissioners and consultants. Undoubtedly some thought long division obsolete; others probably thought teachers would teach long division and that it need not be specifically mentioned. The problem with this latter view is that since long division was not an explicit expectation under the Commission's standards, teachers and testmakers could and would in good conscience omit it. Since it would not have appeared on a state standards-based test (had one been created under the Commission's standards), it would have widely been dropped from textbooks and curricula used around the state.

Bill Evers
Commissioner, Academic Standards Commission