VDOE and the New “Math Path” — Healthy Skepticism and Professionalism Would Be Appreciated

by James C. Sherlock

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) describes the proposed Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI) as follows:

“The Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI) is a joint initiative among the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) and the Virginia Community College System (VCCS).  The Initiative supports the Profile of a Virginia Graduate by redefining mathematics pathways for students in the Commonwealth to address the knowledge, skills, experiences, and attributes that students must attain to be successful in college and/or the workforce and to be “life ready.””

Everyone wishes such things to be true. The new proposal to overhaul the teaching of math to them, however, requires more both more caution and more professionalism than is indicated by the VDOE.

“Catalyzing Change”

I researched the origin of VMPI, the new “Math Path” offered for consideration by VDOE. It is the Catalyzing Change initiative of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). One of the key tenets of Catalyzing Change:

“We must be purposeful in addressing racism and trauma as we-

  • support the use of mathematics as an analytic tool to challenge power, privilege, and oppression;
  • encourage all educators to challenge systems of oppression that privilege some while disadvantaging others; and
  • inspire all educators to create socially and emotionally safe spaces for themselves, their students, and colleagues.”

To achieve those results NCTM proposes the new path and opposes tracking by ability and “high stakes” testing.

I am skeptical, but will be fine with any of those things as long as they also let each student achieve to the limits of his or her capabilities.

The goal offered by NCTM President Trena Wilkerson is fine, it really is, but it does not go far enough.

“Each and every student must be equipped to use math to make sense of our world and to increase their opportunities moving forward.”

It is clear that she stops there because she feels she cannot state a goal, maximizing individual student achievement, the implementation of which would produce unequal outcomes.

My input to vdoe

From the VMPI website:

The VMPI will develop an initial vision for mathematics education in K-12 that will require feedback from many different stakeholders across the Commonwealth.

I decided to jump that particular gun and give them feedback now. I quote my email below.

Dear Sir or Madam:

I note from the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI) website:

“Possible piloting of high school level mathematics courses prior to full implementation is now being considered. This Initiative will establish an innovative direction for mathematics education in Virginia that will benefit all students.”

Some observations and recommendations:

First, This is entirely too big of a change to enter into without healthy skepticism. You have left the well-grounded impression that VDOE intends to implement these changes no matter the cost or benefits.

A statement like, “This Initiative will establish an innovative direction for mathematics education in Virginia that will benefit all students” shows not only a lack of skepticism, but of inquiry. Your minds appear made up. That turns doctrine into dogma, considered to be absolutely true regardless of evidence, or without evidence (“possible piloting”) to support it.

(As a note, running a pilot only in high school is backwards.  The foundation of the statewide math problem is in K-3.  Look at the 4th grade NAEP results from 2019.  If fourth graders can’t multiply, the rest of the problem is set in stone.)

Virginians have no reason based on what you have written to expect VDOE to conduct or assess this program objectively.

To fix that problem internally and its perception externally, pursue with simulations and field pilots answers to the cautionary “questions to consider” that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) offers with every policy paper.

You should consider why NTCM is much more modest about making their recommendations than you are in accepting them.

You offer no reference to such questions.  The answers to each of those and many other questions must be fully illuminated in professional analyses of both best practices and the cost/benefit equations before they are widely implemented.

I recommend you hire a modeling, simulation and systems engineering firm, by which the beltway is lined, to

  • design and structure the data collection;
  • design and run first simulations and then field pilots at all grade levels for a sufficient periods of time to gather meaningful structured data;
  • provide assessments of each stage to prove or disprove each of the tenets of VMPI and to improve implementation if such a path is then decided;
  • release to the public documentation of the results and assessments; and
  • before implementation, take the results to town halls across the state, explain the new system and take comments.

Then and only then, after that public outreach, introduce VMPI statewide if that is what you decide.

As a postscript, if you cannot get a federal grant to fund the effort I describe above you are not trying.

Best Regards