Weekly Math Updates

August 11, 2007

Hi all,

I wanted to give you a quick update so you know what's happening with the new standards. I am grateful for those of you that have emailed the state school board and your legislators. It really does make a difference.

Last Friday the State Board of Education voted in the new math standards after receiving Dr. Jim Milgram's report on how they did nothing to catch us up. In fact there is significant evidence mounting that those in charge of our process intentionally set up the committee to do little else but review the current standards and tighten them a little bit.

If you didn't go to the Senate Blog to see the letter they received as well as Milgram's review, here's the links:

Letter to State Board on why external reviews were sought

Dr. Milgram's Review of the New Standards

Below is a series of emails I have exchanged with the state board and superintendent over the last week and at the bottom is an excellent site I found this morning which shows California's timeline of events being in almost the same spot Utah is right now, just a dozen years ago.

Dear Superintendent Harrington and State School Board Members,

With recent events over the math issue, I have a couple of questions I think would shed some light on the job done by the Steering Committee on math standards.   Last fall when the issue arose and the state office voluntarily opted to rewrite standards rather than have the legislature handle the job, the resolution adopted stated:

Resolved, that the Utah Legislature's Public Education Interim Committee (Committee) endorses the plan for a full review of math standards by the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) to result in world-class math standards.

Two questions arise from this resolution:

1) What evidence can you provide that the Steering Committee took this charge seriously to provide "world-class" standards?
2) What evidence can you provide that the new core does provide world-class standards?


Oak Norton

Mr Norton,

I don't want to sound trite, but would you please define "world-class" math standards?  Also, is there an electronic (or printed) copy of "world-class" secondary and/or K-6 curriculum available for consideration?  Further, is any "world-class" math curriculum presently used in any public school system in the United States?  If yes, is student performance on national norm-referenced assessment tests significantly better than we observe in Utah?  Also, what rigor or specific areas are missing from the new mathematics curriculum the board adopted last week?  I appreciate you understanding and goal to improve our curriculum to help make our students more competitive in the world marketplace.

Bill Colbert
Member, Utah State Board of Education
District 11

Mr. Colbert,

Thank you for responding.  I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your email.  I don't mean to sound condescending, but why are you asking me for the definition of "world-class" standards in August 2007, after already approving them at the conclusion of the process, rather than have asked it in November 2006 when the resolution was adopted?  I am more than a little surprised at your questioning.  Are you not aware that the United States is lagging many other countries in math, many of which are considerably below us on the technology scale?  I have to assume you know this, so the charge to the committee seems obvious that the legislature wants standards on par with countries such as Singapore and Japan to ensure that our technological future is safe.  What evidence can you provide that our standards are on par with them?  What work was done to compare the standards to Singapore, the clear math leader in the world, to ensure that we were going to keep up with the content they address at specific grade levels?

Oak Norton

Mr Norton,

Forgive me for any misunderstanding.  If I had any evidence there was so much grave concern about the process or criteria in developing the new math standards, I would have asked my questions earlier.  I did not serve on the committee proposing the new standards, but understand the committee included stakeholders with broad expertise and perspectives in math education.  I didn't realize there was a disconnect - until I received an email the morning of our board meeting.  If there was concern over the membership and direction of the committee, why wasn't this issue raised much earlier in the process?  I also understand the proposed curriculum was discussed in a recent meeting with representatives of the Utah State Legislature. Did anyone identify any "fatal" flaws in the process or outcome during that meeting?

As an electrical and civil & environmental engineer, I understand the importance of mathematics in education.  I am not alone in seeking improved math understanding and performance from all our students. Utah students certainly need to do better in a variety of subjects to successfully compete in our evolving world economy.

I haven't heard anyone state that the new standards aren't a significant improvement over our previous standards.  I supported a positive change.  I heard someone state that we moved from a "D" standard to a "B" standard.  If true, while perhaps not ideal, it is certainly better than retaining the status quo while. 

Personally, I'd like to understand specifically where the Singapore standards are more rigorous than the new Utah standards. There are many references to the Singapore standards on the Internet, but I haven't found any detailed comparative analysis between systems. 

Apparently good people have honest differences in opinions about what approach would best meets the future needs of Utah's children.

Bill Colbert
Member, USBE
District 11 

Bill and other members of the school board: 

I hope you'll forgive the lengthy email, but since you professed some measure of ignorance concerning the history of this issue, I feel I need to go into a little more detail to help you understand what has happened in the past.  You have also not yet addressed how the committee took their charge to create world-class standards and how the new core achieves that.  Regardless of how little you may be aware of this history, I can assure you, those in charge of the committee process were clearly "in-the-know". 

Also, please do not mistake my passion for hostility.  I feel Utah should not play second fiddle to any other state in the union.  Utah should set the bar higher than anyone else and that is the message I have been sounding for two and a half years and will continue to espouse untill it becomes reality.  No state should surpass us in standards or achievement.

Brett Moulding knows first-hand what has been happening since he was in attendance at the February 2006 legislative session when I testified about the sorry state of Utah's standards .  I recommended to the committee that we should just adopt California's math standards as a quick way to jump start ours since their standards are A-rated and their test scores are above ours.  Brett was invited up from the audience to comment on my statements and proceeded to contradict me and said that Utah's NAEP scores were doing better than California's .  I countered that I did not believe we did on a demographic basis.   A few hours later he received an email contradicting his position with proof of the scores and had to send a recanting email to all the members of the education committee for his incorrect statements.

The result of his contradiction in the committee meeting was the subcommittee asking for an analysis of Utah's standards to find out where we really were.  The DOE (I assume Brett Moulding) asked West Ed to do the job.  In October 2006, West Ed appeared to the education sub-committee and presented an extraordinarily shoddy piece of work comparing our standards to California and a couple other states.  Dr. Jim Milgram from Stanford was in attendance and completely embarrassed West Ed by showing how far out-of-touch with reality they were.  I was there, as was Brett Moulding and Patti Harrington.   

In November 2006, I was absent from the committee meeting but I understand Patti Harrington volunteered to have the standards redone in Utah to prevent the legislature from just adopting California's standards.  (In the October meeting you also missed Dr. Milgram's explanation of how California went from one of the top states in math to 2nd lowest in the country and as a result of their new standards have now moved up nearly 20 spots over just a few years--ie. their standards are excellent and they are bringing great changes about in the schools in California in multiple ways). 

As stated previously, the resolution adopted at this meeting stated: 

"Resolved, that the Utah Legislature's Public Education Interim Committee (Committee) endorses the plan for a full review of math standards by the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) to result in world-class math standards." 

Very few people in Utah are qualified to comment on standards, let alone write them.  It is a very precise field of study above and beyond mathematics itself.  Because Utah is a small state with limited experience in this field, some legislators were in favor of adopting California's A-rated standards last year rather than risk a situation where an unqualified committee in Utah would create something less rigorous and precise than California's standards. 

Some of you are now asking what “world-class standards” are and why they're so important? I expressed surprise at this in my prior email and must state that to complain that legislators and the public are coming in late in the game is unfair when the board members didn't take the time to understand the background of the issue last fall. The answer to the question, again, is in the comments from the legislature when they asked that we achieve standards on par with Japan and Singapore.  Those are world-class standards because they have a much more limited number of topics at each grade level and then spend the time required to master them. It is the end of the “mile wide and inch deep” syndrome everyone talks about and few see the solution for. This is what leads to proficiency, deep thinking and reasoning skills. 

The importance of rigorous and precisely defined standards cannot be overestimated. It sets the foundation for the entire educational system by removing all ambiguity concerning what children should learn and when, and what teachers need to know to impart that knowledge to them. It also creates an environment that will attract high-paying, high-tech jobs because those professionals will know their children will get a world-class education here as nowhere else in the country. 

From the beginning of this new standard re-write process a number of legislators (and many in the public) were deeply concerned that the committee chosen by Brett Moulding and Nicole Paulson was comprised of a super-majority that signed a document a year ago that our D and C rated (Fordham and US Chamber of Commerce respectively) standards didn't need to be changed. It appears they felt that the status quo of nearly 70% of college freshmen needing math remediation was acceptable (UVSC-66%, SLCC-69%). People that don't see the problem never see the solution and it was nothing less than reckless to put this committee together and smacks to me of intentionally trying to torpedo the effort.   (I believe Patti Harrington was also made aware of these concerns while the committee was being formed or shortly afterward.)

To say to the public “you had a chance to comment on the new standards before we approved them” is a weak method of passing the buck. You are telling the public that they are the ones ultimately responsible for vouching the work done by the committee, when you as state board members were assigned the task of getting us to world-class levels. The ultimate failure of the selected committee to do that came to greater attention when all the K-12 standards were on the table.  Concerns mounted that the standards were not world-class and several legislators asked for an independent review of the standards from Dr. Milgram since he had previously appeared before the committee and was well qualified to comment on them.  Dr. Milgram's report was late to your process not due to planned timing but just the soonest he could provide his analysis after inquiries were made.   That the committee lightly tossed aside his comments last week and proceeded to vote in the new standards without considering the serious nature of his comments is an indictment the board will have to bear.

Dr. Wu from Berkeley was the external reviewer for the new standards.  I am unsure how many of you saw Dr. Wu's work, but many of his comments were ignored by the committee. Nearly impossible to fathom, our *expert* committee actually decided against putting logarithms and exponents into the algebra standards until Dr. Wu made it clear that they had to be included. Let me say that again, we would not have EXPONENTS in our standards if we had not had an external reviewer demand they be included, so pitiful were the standards our committee wrote. This illustrates the weak background (and perhaps inadequate time) the selected committee had in understanding the content that needs to be taught to all students to prepare them adequately for college and it leads into the next point.

What level are we teaching to in our K-12 system? Many people think K-12 should be geared toward ensuring *all* students get the same education, so they encourage subjects to be taught to the level of the lowest 25th percentile “so we don't miss anyone”. This is just the opposite of what should be. We should be setting the bar high to ensure all students are challenged and that we produce top thinkers, and then remediate those that are truly struggling with the math.  There is a gross fallacy that permeates the education establishment in our country that not all students can succeed at math.  I suggest you all take a look at the report from California entitled, “They Have Overcome” which documents high poverty, high illegal alien, high ESL schools which are surpassing other *rich* schools because they have administrators and teachers that don't buy-in to the lie that not everyone can learn. Everyone can learn and it's not based on money or even technology. They've proven that it can be done without the funding. There are rich and poor schools that fail and others that succeed and it's a function of what students are being taught and what expectations are being set for them. (That said, I am very much in favor of paying teachers more as their standards for employment are raised as well to match world-class teacher standards—for example Hungary requires K-4 teachers to have two full years of college math to become certified to teach, thus ensuring teachers are well qualified to teach their subject matter.)

What should happen at this point is the people responsible for putting the committee together should be reprimanded, and Drs. Milgram and Wu should be invited to respond to your questions regarding world-class standards and the differences between Utah and Singapore.  They are both renouned mathematicians that have vast experience with standards writing and educational research.  Dr. Milgram sits on NASA's advisory panel solely for education issues and has been involved in writing several states A-rated standards.  We should ask them to provide us with a template for world-class standards that can then be set to public review in Utah.  This is the foundation for our future and we must start to catch up with the rest of the world right now or we will continue to fall behind for years to come.


Oak Norton 

Link to PDF of "They Have Overcome"

CORRECTION TO DR. MILGRAM'S CREDENTIALS: After posting this I learned Dr. Milgram is on the NASA Advisory Council as a full member, and the first mathematician ever accorded that honor, due primarily to his work in trying to fix mathematics education in this country. The reason he's on the NAC and not one of the others is that he also does research published in leading journals in robotics, control theory, computational chemistry, and computational biology. So he knows as well as anyone how mathematics is actually used at the highest levels in applications.

Today's email:

Dear State Board Members,

    I just wanted to draw your attention to this news story and web page.  The first story shows how the US is backing away from the TIMSS exam perhaps because of the international beating we take.


    Second, this webpage may help enlighten you as to the situation regarding California's own timeline which is 10-12 years ahead of us.


    You will find on this page that many who were not excited at all to adopt tougher standards in California are now recognizing the changes that have come to their system as very positive.  You will also see that new standards aren't the only thing that helps with reform, but it is the foundation from which all other reforms come.  We need the strongest standards and then better assessment tests, teacher training, teacher certification, and so on.  World-class standards set the tone for everything else.  Again, I ask that you invite Drs. Milgram and Wu to give us a world-class standards template from which we can work.  The TIMSS exam mentioned above shows how far behind the United States is.  We've got to catch up now.


Oak Norton


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