Plano Star Courier, January , 1999

Connected Math Data May Be Tainted By NSF Grants, Conflicts of Interest

When it comes to tracing the money trail for the Connected Mathematics Program, all roads lead to the National Science Foundation (NSF). More than $40 M has been divvied out by the NSF for the development and promotion of CMP across the nation. The potential for conflict of interest is huge. In 1991, NSF awarded a $5 M grant to Michigan State University to "develop, field-test, evaluate, and disseminate" the Connected Mathematics Program (CMP). Subsequently, another $3 M grant was given in 1995 to support a 4-year program to prepare 360 teachers at 10 test sites to implement CMP.

CMP developers conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of CMP. Two tests were used on the CMP group of students and the control group: Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and Balanced Assessment (BA). The ITBS results, which is a typical standardized test, were not conclusive. Predictably, CMP students did very well in the BA compared with the control group because the questions require more elaborate explanations to a few problems which is what CMP is designed to teach. Now, Balanced Assessment was developed through a $4 M NSF grant in 1994 awarded to three universities: UC Berkeley, Harvard University and, you could have guess this, Michigan State University. Both BA and CMP coincidentally share the same publishing house too! How should we view the objectivity of this yardstick?

Researchers at University of Missouri/Show-Me Center published a study titled "Standards-Based Middle Grade Mathematics Curricula" supporting the adoption of mathematics curriculum such as CMP. This report was given to parents who asked for data supporting CMP. However the integrity of this study is tainted by the fact that the researchers received a $6 M NSF grant for the purpose of  facilitating and supporting the implementation of these curricula and they are also in partnership with the commercial publishers (Addison Wesley-Dale Seymour). Would you trust a study with such an entangled web of conflicting interest?

In an apparent effort to win grassroots support, a $5 M  grant was given in 1997 to the Austin ISD which co-ordinates with other state agencies to "target …approximately 2400 K-8 teachers of mathematics." They attend workshops for Investigations (a new elementary math curriculum in Mendenhall) and CMP. Incidentally, both share the same publisher and are classified as non-conforming textbooks in Texas. Under this grant, each teacher will receive 126 hours of formal professional development and 120 hours of campus level support and classroom coaching. The strategic disbursements in various states no doubt provide vital leverage on local textbook adoption committees. In addition to this, NSF also funneled another $6 M grant in 1998 to the Texas Statewide Systemic Initiatives (TSSI) for the same purpose of training teachers in science, mathematics and technology. According to a TSSI document, "the most important work … is in directing the implementation of the CMP curriculum in 43 schools across the state."

With a multi-billion dollar annual budget, the NSF is not only seeking to develop new curricula but is also actively influencing school districts to adopt those materials. The former is noble but the latter can become highly questionable. Studies are financed to prove that these programs are effective using yardsticks crafted with NSF funds and published by the same publishers of CMP. Teachers who attended these workshops would sit on textbook adoption committees. The undue influence procured through federal funds guarantees saturated exposure for certain non-conforming textbooks to the detriment of mainline conforming textbooks. How can we ensure objectivity and integrity in this whole process? We should based our decision on objective test scores instead of anecdotes and testimonials. There should be clear guidelines spelled out in advance concerning the types of test data to collect and evaluate in order to ascertain the effectiveness of a program. We should also ensure that members of textbook adoption cmmittees as well as administrators who make recommendations should be free from any pecuniary or professional interest in the textbooks under consideration.

This will be the last article that I will be contributing to this debate. I'd like to thank the editors for granting me the opportunity and space to share my findings. Some of you may wonder why have I spend so much of my time doing all this research. Let me declare that I have no political ambition, at least not in any foreseeable future. I am concerned because I notice the standard of mathematics in elementary schools is already not rigorous enough. Neither do I have an axe to grind against PISD. In fact, I have been serving as an interpreter for the last couple of years and have good working relations with the staff. In my communications concerning CMP, I have been treated respectfully by teachers as well as administrators.

My doubts concerning CMP intensified after attending two parent briefings. CMP was presented as near flawless. The empirical evidence provided did not stand up to scrutiny. Parental demands for more data were answered with anecdotes. More persistent questions evoke defensive responses. These are tell tale signs that this program is highly questionable. Further research convinced me that Connected Mathematics cannot be used as a textbook for our schools unless PISD can refute the substantive facts presented here by many Plano residents.

Some parents have requested that we look at the percentile changes in the TAAS scores both during and before CMP instead of just simply looking at the percentage passing. We have also requested for a more in-depth look at the ITBS scores. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have also created a test for eighth graders to see how our kids fare on the international stage. These data should be readily available to PISD, if not, there should be an easy means of collecting them if there is a will. However, PISD's apparent hesitation or reluctance may imply tentativeness in its confidence in this program to meet the standards. With so much more resources at their disposal, PISD should publicly address these issues with facts because parents are very concerned about the declining standard of mathematics. The fear that Connected Mathematics Program could further erode our children's mathematical skills is well justified.

Timothy Soh

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