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Conversation with Skip Fennell (Part I)

Earlier this year, Francis M. "Skip" Fennell's two-year term as president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics officially ended. Debates over the most effective strategies for teaching math—sometimes called the "math wars"—have been playing out for years in school districts around the country. And it's safe to say that Fennell has had a unique vantage point in observing, and to some degree, attempting to mediate those disputes.

In 2006, NCTM released "Curriculum Focal Points." The document that seeks to spell out the core math skills students need in grades pre-K-8 drew praise from combatants on various sides of the math wars. Fennell has taken a major role in promoting that document to the media, the public, and to policymakers at all levels.

And more recently, he served on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a White House-commissioned group charged with identifying the most effective ways to prepare students for introductory algebra. As a member of that group, Fennell shared a dais with some panelists who have been sharply critical of NCTM's approach to teaching math; yet he also caught flak from some of NCTM's 100,000 members, who complained that the panel was pushing an overly narrow approach to math instruction, focused far too heavily on arithmetic.

I recently spoke with Fennell, who's now returning to a more active teaching role at McDaniel College in Maryland, to get his thoughts on his varied experiences as NCTM president. He had just returned from a trip to a math conference in Monterrey, Mexico, where he spoke about the math panel's work. His official title now is NCTM past-president, and he was president-elect for another year before his two-year term officially began.

"Some say it's a four-year sentence," joked Fennell, calling the NCTM presidency "commanding and demanding."

Fennell, who helped write Focal Points, has traveled the country over the past few years, along with others who worked on the document. His goal has been to explain its goals and persuade state officials to consider using the document as they revise their state academic standards in math. (State standards are in many ways where the action is in math curricula; standards determine the content of state tests, as well as the material that teachers cover in class, and the content of math textbooks).

"That was a very important project for NCTM," Fennell said. "The issue of focus and coherence is a big one. I'd like to say that we were at the forefront of that." The organization was not trying to say "you teach less, but you have to streamline the math curriculum," he added. "People get that. ... No 4th grade teacher should be having to cover 100 different points in the curriculum. NCTM has gotten that message out."

The former president said that he and NCTM's executive director, Jim Rubillo, have joked that they should be charging people for the document, which can be accessed for free from NCTM's Web site. Focal Points and its supporting materials have been downloaded more than a million times, the organization estimates.

Fennell credits his predecessor as NCTM president, Cathy Seeley, for laying the groundwork for Focal Points. The organization is currently working on a similiar document for high school math, which it hopes to release next year. The release of that work will be overseen by current President Henry (Hank) Kepner.

Fennell said he regarded part of his role as president as an attempt to narrow some of the divides that separate his organization from his critics. He believes Focal Points will help.

"People in the past who were critical of NCTM, I've tried hard to work with those folks," he said. That doesn't mean he's asking NCTM members to accept all the views of mathematicians or cognitive psychologists about how students should be taught math, he said. But NCTM is ultimately better off working directly with its critics than ignoring or dismissing them out of hand, Fennell argued.

"Having NCTM engaged in a lot of things is a benefit," he said. "When people have these discussions [about math] today, NCTM and Focal Points come up in the discussion, and I feel good about that."

Not that bringing the two sides together is easy, he added.

"I've had mathematicians who think I'm crazy, and I've had people in my own crowd who think I made wrong decisions," he said. "I'm not looking back."

As elected officials and business leaders have called for higher standards in math and science, saying it is vital to future U.S. "competitiveness," Fennell said he has also tried to convey the message that policymakers also need to be promoting equity in the classroom. Not all students learn at the same pace, and more resources need to be put into helping struggling and disadvantaged students."We want to be competitive internationally, [but] meanwhile, we want all kids to have access" to good math instruction, he said. In the years ahead, he expects to encourage policymakers to look at the idea of hiring math "specialists" at the elementary level as a potential way to increase the quality of math teaching.

Next week, I'll post some of Fennell's thoughts about the work of the National Math Panel and his role in its discussions.

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