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Consciousness Levels and Political Relations as Determinants of Sustainable

Joe Merlino

"All organizational systems are complex, but few could rival our systems of public education for dynamic complexity. The typical reforming school system includes a range of stakeholders with diverse and often conflicting interests...Nothing is static: administrators and educators retire or take positions in other districts; families move; children graduate; coalitions shift."
- Scott Thompson, assistant director of the Panasonic Foundation

"Reform" is undoubtedly one of the most overused words in education and politics. The term implies a structural change and improvement that has a system wide applicability. But given the "dynamic complexity" of public education, the difficulty of implementing and sustaining significant reform is often under appreciated. In the 2001 Sustainability Conference, panelist Mark St. John cited the problem of "program erosion" as an obstacle to sustaining reform.

Consider program erosion caused by excessive teacher turnover. For example, in Philadelphia public high schools, the two-year teacher turnover rate ranges from 31% to 41% depending on the poverty level of the high school, according to a May 2001 study (Neild 2001). In many of Philadelphia's the highest poverty high schools, such as Ben Franklin High school, we tried for years to implement the Interactive Mathematics Program. Using an incremental pilot implementation approach, we could never establish a stable and large enough cadre of trained IMP teachers to sustain the program. Many teachers would leave after two years. Since IMP is a four-year training program, soon after we trained teachers in IMP 1 and 2 teachers they would leave. We would have to begin anew. To make matters worse, new math teachers would often be hired well into the new school year on an emergency basis to teach IMP classes for which they had not as yet received training.

Mark St. John used the analogy of painting the Golden Gate to describe challenge of sustaining a project. He argued to sustain a project, a dynamic equilibrium must be established between "program erosion" and maintenance." To use the bridge painting analogy, as soon as the painting crews have finished painting one end of the bridge, salt and rain have eroded the work at the other end and painting must begin anew. St John pointed to the paradox where the most needy schools in terms of innovation also have the highest erosion rates making it difficult to maintain a reform program in those schools. Certainly, Ben Franklin High School fits the bill.

However, in last year's Sustainability Conference Keynote Address, Larry Cuban argued that the more important question is not how to sustain a project, but why sustain it? Given the enormous effort and resources necessary to overcome the severe erosion effects of teacher and administrative turnover, this is more than an academic question.

But perhaps a more fundamental question is not why sustain a project, but what is the "it" that should be sustained? Just what is it about math reform programs like IMP or CORE-Plus that make them worthwhile to sustain? Teacher and administrative staff turnover is only a serious problem if that which is lost is of value. What is it about math reform that is of value and why don't new teachers have enough of it that they must be trained to get it?

I would argue that the "it" in math reform is not a particular program, or project, per se, but the recovery of the original form of learning. If reform implies structural change, it also implies something that was once "formed," somehow got "deformed," and now needs to be "re-formed." In politics, that which was originally formed could be principals or ideals, such as the democratic electoral process. In education, what are the original "forms" than must now be re-formed?

Consider the enthusiasm for learning of 5 year-old children. From 0 to 5 years of age the developing child has been on a steeping learning and growth curve, having already mastered what no other animal can do: communicate to others using a complex verbal symbol system--language. It is any surprise they are eager to start school, open to new experiences, wondering about everything, incessantly questioning, and trusting in adults' superior knowledge. It is learning at it most innocent and joyous. Then school happens. By the middle of elementary schools, the original form begins to degrade and deform. In ten years, math goes from being one of kid's most joyful experiences to one in which many 15 year olds describe as boring, torturous--even evil. What happened?

In the pre-school form, mathematical learning was realistic and integrated, because the real world itself is integrated. A child learned interactively with objects accompanied by sensory-motor experiences. Learning was social mediated because the child was borne as a fundamentally social being, not as an isolated individual. The mind, like any biological entity, needs a richly supportive and stimulating environment with the opportunity to function on its own. Unfettered with formal schooling, early childhood can be an exciting and engrossing experience with so many things to learn and interconnections to discover. Rather than a bridge to be painted and maintained, the child is more like a fast growing green bean stalk that needs to be cultivated.

Mathematics reform, as expressed in the NCTM's Principals and Standards for School Mathematics and as embodied in curricula such as Everyday Math, Connected Math and the Interactive Mathematics Program attempt to recapture these earlier ways of knowing that were so successful in early childhood. If the spirit of mathematics reform harkens back to this earlier, more joyous and highly productive time of learning, why has reform proven so difficult to initiate and maintain?

As Panasonic's Scott Thompson points out, education systems are unrivaled in their dynamic organizational complexity. If the family farm represents the one room schoolhouse, today's education systemic is akin to a multi-billion dollar agribusiness. To implement and sustain mathematics or science reform, an LSC must negotiate within a complex, interwoven web of external and internal constituents:




Federal Agencies and Regs

School Board Members

State Education Agencies

Superintendents and Assistants

Colleges and Universities

Curriculum Directors

Business Corporate


Grant givers

Roster Persons

Local Press

Guidance Counselors

Home and School Associations

Math Department Heads/Supervisors




Current Students

Incoming students


Each of these constituent groups, by virtue of their positions within this complex system, have perspectives on and often competing interpretations about the purposes of schooling. Mathematics education in particular evokes passionate opinions. Each constituent has an agenda. Local press wants a story. Roster persons want ease of scheduling. Parents with Ivy League college bound children want honors track and courses whose content is familiar and grading criteria is predictable. Teachers want to cover the material. Teenagers just want to get though their math class.

What makes implementing and sustaining reform so difficult is that these external and internal constituents are not organized in a strictly top-down, linear hierarchical order. Rather, these constituents arrayed in a dynamic relationship where differently positioned constituents can influence others in circuitous routes. In his book Godel, Escher, Bach: An External Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter uses imagery of "strange loops" to describe "an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level."

So we have the strange loop situation where a high school math teacher who is resistant to reform speaks to parents about his fears that the new NSF sponsored high school math curriculum that the district adopted will not prepare students for college. Articles he has downloaded from a web site apparently support this fear. Rumors he has heard where other districts have dropped this reform curriculum seem to confirm them. Parents in turn spread the news within their own community networks. One such parent is an elected school board member. This school board member, who is the chair of the school board's education committee, has a child in the traditional honors program. She schedules a hearing about this new curriculum and invites parents and local press to attend. Several parents express their concerns and fears at the next board curriculum committee and claim this curriculum harms students, citing its sensational failures according to the statement of several university mathematicians. The reporter writes an article in the local weekly quoting the parents.

The superintendent, who gave the math department a forced choice of adopting one of two curriculums, receives numerous phone calls from angry parents now wanting a choice of the traditional curriculum. He is now in a dilemma. To not give parents a choice threatens the entire new program. But to allow the honors parents to choose their curriculum undermines the claim that the new curriculum is for all student and instead sends the message it is only for the "lower tracks," plus it elevates the parents of honors students to preferred status among other parents.

In this case, sustainability has little to do with the availability of financial resources. It is not a matter of the school board inserting a line item to continue training teachers in this new program after the LSC funds run out. It is, instead, a political issue grounded in the level of consciousness about the goals and epistemology of learning mathematics explicitly or implicitly harbored by each constituent arrayed along this strange loop of relations within this educational system.

It has been often said that all the stakeholders of the system must share a common vision for reform to take hold. While this is true, it begs the question about what is the source of this vision. Achieving such a shared vision requires more than agreement about rhetoric. More fundamentally, it presumes a common set of shared experiences from which the meaning of that vision emanates. Perhaps the prime reason for the enduring stability of our 20th century educational system is that by the end of the century nearly everyone within this strange loop has experienced traditional, lecture style, textbook driven schooling. For many school board members, especially more senior ones, the most salient feature of their mathematical education was memorizing their multiplication tables.

Sustaining the vision of mathematics reformation requires buying time for teachers and students to experience something new and improved, to internalize the change, and to have it become a social norm. When a critical mass of students experience in their middle childhood and adolescent years the same engrossing mathematical interaction with the world as they did when they were preschoolers, albeit with more advanced concepts, they will have developed a different level of consciousness about mathematics and who they are.

When they eventually graduate to become parents, voters, math teachers and eventually administrators and school boards members, they will bring to their work a shared set of experiences and expectations about what education in general and mathematics education in particular should look like. They will represent a different political culture visa-vis education. Going "back to basics" for them will be as going back to the caves. Having experienced the ability to think mathematically with a heightened sense-making power that pervades their perception of the world, they will recognize when mathematics is presented in superficial, stilted forms. In short, they will know better. And, thus, they will know what to advocate and insist upon for their children and those in their charge.

In the Philadelphia region, we have been attempting to implement mathematics reform using exemplary NSF sponsored curriculum and providing intensive professional development for nearly 10 years. We are seeing the slow moving wheel of this "reculturing" process, as Mike Klentschy described in last year's panel article, take hold. Starting in 1993 with nine "heroic volunteer" teachers from six diverse Philadelphia high schools who agreed to pilot IMP, we have now provided training to nearly 1,000 secondary teachers in five other NSF-sponsored middle and high school reform curricula.

We now have the perspective to see how the course of "sustainability" unfolds in sometimes surprising ways. For example, one of our early IMP teachers, "Joie," taught at Strawberry Mansion High School an impoverished inner city school. It was one of our original pilot IMP schools. As administrators and math department heads of this high school changed, support for IMP eroded. Eventually, the IMP program was died due to staff attrition. Joie was one of the teachers to leave. She left to assume a math supervisor position at Penn Ridge High School, a Philadelphia suburban school. While IMP was not sustained as a pilot program at Strawberry Mansion High School, it was later systemically implemented at Penn Ridge and is now firmly established there. Meanwhile, the former principal of Strawberry Mansion also left to co-found a math/science charter school where IMP is the standard high school curriculum.

This secondary effect has been a common pattern. What is not sustained in the original pilot school has nonetheless produced teachers and administrators who carry the program with them and "seed" other sites as they assume teaching positions and higher levels of responsibility. The advantage of a multi-district, regional LSC is that it is of sufficient size and scope to "capture" a schools' otherwise "lost" teachers and administrators and empower their reemergence in these other positions and schools. The promise of the NSF's new comprehensive Math, Science Partnerships is that they can build upon the previous work of LSCs to elevate the conscious level of a sufficient sizable group of other constituents to transform the educational culture in a manner that actualizes a new vision of math and science learning.

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