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Stifling a reporter's creativity

In this morning’s New York Times, there’s an article called As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics by Tamar Lewin. First of all, Tamar? Who names their daughter Tamar? Did they not read the Bible?

What I meant to write about, though, is about yet another potential change in the way arithmetic is taught in elementary schools. There’s a lot to be cranky about—Ms. Lewin mentions a report by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics but doesn’t seem to have talked to any officials or representatives of that group, much less anybody who writes the textbooks that are being discussed. But what really caught my eye was this:

“When my oldest child, an A-plus stellar student, was in sixth grade, I realized he had no idea, no idea at all, how to do long division,” Ms. Backman said, “so I went to school and talked to the teacher, who said, ‘We don’t teach long division; it stifles their creativity.’ ”

A question for Gentle Readers: Do you believe this conversation happened? Do you believe that the teacher said what Ms. Backman claims was said? Because I, for one, do not. I have some small experience of teachers, and I simply do not believe that any teacher in this nation has used the phrase “stifles their creativity” seriously at any time in the last five years, certainly not in a conversation with an aggrieved parent.

Now, I like long division, and I think there are a lot of good reasons for teaching it, but on the other hand there are lots of other things to teach, and I would understand if my Perfect Reader never learns it, because, you know, honestly, there’s not so much long division in the real world. It’s fun and instructive, and gives practice multiplying single-digit numbers and subtracting double-digit numbers, and those things are really quite useful to be able to do in your head, and besides I think it can give a sense of numbers and patterns that might, for some kids, lead them to consider putting some effort into real math. Which would be hijjus for those kids, who might turn into mathematicians, but it would be Good for the Country, which needs mathematicians to, um, you know, all that stuff. The stuff we need mathematicians to do. Make physicists feel good about themselves.

But my point (here it comes, wait, no, it was here a minute ago) is not about long division, it’s about journalism. Is there an ethical problem in letting Ms. Backman just make shit up like that? Or is it understood that Ms. Backman is not quoting a teacher, but giving her impression of what the teacher meant? Does Ms. Lewin, as a journalist, have some responsibility to let us know whether the reported conversation actually occurred? Are we, as readers, expected to believe Ms. Backman’s reporting? Or Ms. Lewin’s reporting of Ms. Backman’s reporting? Is there harm done (to the credibility of the paper, to the image in our heads of teacher, to our culture) by that paragraph? Or is clearly laying out the issue, by reporting Ms. Backman’s self-description of why she is organizing?

It makes me very uncomfortable, in part because I think Ms. Backman is, in some sense, slandering teacherhood. As a culture, we build up images or types, and just the way that, f’r’ex, professional baseball players are viewed as lazy, selfish, arrogant and dishonest, teachers are viewed as small-minded, bureaucratic, inflexible and petty. All of the negative aspects of unionism in our culture are put on them, and none of the positive ones (if there are any left). Individually, of course, we love teachers, or hate them, depending on the individuals, but more likely respect and appreciate them. Not all of us, and not all teachers, but in general, if you have an acquaintance from high-school who went into elementary-school teaching, you probably think good for her. But the generic teacher is not like that. Which is why we can’t possibly raise our taxes to give them significant support.

In a world where (as is clearly implied in this article), math teachers can make much more money and enjoy better working conditions by quitting the day job and going into tutoring full-time, it’s a problem if we erroneously think that teachers will not teach long division for fear of stifling the child’s productivity. Naturally, then, we will not feel ashamed when the resources are diverted away from that small-minded, bureaucratic, inflexible and petty teacher, and to the clever, independent entrepreneur at Kumon. It won’t occur to us that it’s the same person, simply following the resources. The fact that there are lots of students who won’t be able to follow the teacher (as she follows the resources) might, but then our solution will be to provide some way for that student to follow that teacher, thus diverting even more resources away from the school.

I think it’s fair to blame Ms. Backman for her share in that. I’m not sure if it’s fair to blame Ms. Lewin.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


yeah that sounds like polarized memory syndrome. too many rhetorical retellings.

Many readers of "As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics" will be interested to know that Milgram, Howe (Yale), Richard Askey (Wisconsin), Retakh (Rutgers), Fuson (Northwestern), the leaders of the math education system in Hungary (including International Mathematical Union President Lovász) and in Russia (including Ilyashenko (Cornell), Gutenmacher, Rabbot, Toom, Yashchenko and many Moscow Center for Continuing Mathematical Education team members), Namikawa (Nagoya), and Gardiner (Birmingham) and other European school mathematics leaders are behind the new mathematics programs (inspired early on by LiPing Ma) of Advanta.net (http://www.advantaeducation.net). The math programs are designed to bring the math competence of North American and Western European teachers and students up to that of their peers in the countries that consistently score at the top of international education rankings. Advanta.net's Board group includes the likes of former Senator Bill Bradley, former Labor Secretary and current Berkeley Professor Robert Reich, Sun co-founder John Gage, and a growing list of European former Ministers of Education.

The mathematics programs encompass separate Master's Degree-earning programs for elementary and middle school teachers (starting 2007/January) as well as after-school programs (starting 2006/December), both for elite students and for students who need remedial guidance.

As will be expected by those who know members of the content team the learning approach is fundamentally different from the one of Kumon, in that it is based on fewer, harder, richer problems that develop a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.

Advanta.net is at the absolute technological forefront in that the company's classrooms are set up so that the Master Instructors and program participants all see each other, from schools or their home, through high-quality Internet video, and in that the community knowledge is quickly expanded by the consistent use of wikis. Advanta.net's infrastructure will soon allow it to serve, with much live and rich media interaction, some 300,000 teacher program participants and a similar number of student program participants.

In New York City Advanta.net is preparing to run sessions for math coaches - this as a stepping stone towards serving many of the more than 10,000 NYCDOE teachers who need extensive professional development even if strict subject specialization is introduced at the elementary school level.

For information email advantanet@www.socialtext.net, with the Subject line preferably set to precisely
Policy and marketing/United States/National and Multi-State/Mathematics/General

Erik Syring

The above comment is repeated verbatim on several blogs (at least) that referenced the NYT article. I consider it comment spam. On the other hand, as it doesn't appear to actually be misleading—Erik Syring is, in fact, the CEO of the company in question, which does more or less what he is spamming us that it does, I am leaving it up for now. Please, Gentle Reader, take into account, when musing over the above, that Mr. Syring's company thinks this is a productive and ethical way to advertise. Whether their tutoring is equally productive and ethical is something I cannot answer.


i followed the socialtext.net link to socialtext.com, the most web 2.0 place i've ever visited. they displayed a winningly clueless attitude toward teaching the CIA how to manipulate public spaces to their advantage.

maybe what generated the above piece of PR could be called a billboard spider, if it was automated. it makes me wonder if there's any way to prevent machines from tracking back to sites that have linked to my blog. i consider this theft — i don't have ads, and someone running a spider down a link to me is putting an ad on my site without my permission.

I agree with V. that it's just comment spam (which is indeed a form of advertising--I'm not disagreeing with hibiscus, just using a different label), although it has more grammatically complete sentences than any other piece of comment spam I've ever encountered. (See below.)

And you gotta love someone whose attempt at spam starts with a sentence that takes 75 words to get to the most important verb. It reminds me of my favorite quote about Latin verb placement.

The other thing I found funny about that first sentence is that the construction "readers ... will be interested to know that [x and y] are behind [z]" is most often used (at least in blogs) with known-villainous x and y, to demonstrate that z is bad. So it took me a minute to figure out that in this case x and y are meant to be known-virtuous and that therefore z is supposed to be good.

At least this particular spam doesn't contain any HTML links, which probably means most search engines won't follow the URLs it gives, which probably means that it will fail in its goal of improving the spamming site's ranking in searches. But I suppose it's possible that the goal really was to bring their site to the attention of humans, not machines, which would explain the grammatical sentences and would put this item a small moral step above most comment spam.

I think it is aimed at humans, and I suspect that Mr. Syring wrote up what he thought of as essentially a press release, and distributed it to people he thought would actually be interested in the topic. Not unlike getting his hands on a mailing list of people interested in education policy.

There's interesting stuff, here, I think. From Mr. Syring's point of view, he has identified people who are actually interested in the topic, and therefore might be interested in his company, either as employees, investors or customers. He thinks of a way to bring the company to the attention of, well, all of us. Sure, most of us don't care, but then most of us don't care about nine out of ten bits of literature mailed to us, either.

The difference is that where I only mildly object to people mailing me junk (it would be nicer if they didn't, but it doesn't substantially inconvenience me, nor do I feel it as a personal affront, an invasion of my mailbox, or a violation of my privacy), comment spam is loathsome and vile. Why? As hibiscus points out, he has made the decision not to sell ad space on his site, so the presence of an ad is a violation of that policy. It's almost as if Mr. Syring had taped a Kick Me-Advanta! sign to YHB's back.

On the other hand, I suspect this is a fuck-up. I suspect that either (a) Mr. Syring is so totally clueless about social norms in blogs that he is offending by mistake, or (2) some underling sent this out in Mr. Syring's name without his informed approval.

Still, here's a hypothetical: a Gentle Reader has started a business in a particular field. YHB posts a note that touches on that field. Should Gentle Reader refrain from informing me via blog comment of his business and how to reach it? I think GR should do so. In fact, when GRs endorsed or even just pointed to various cleaning products last month, it was helpful to YHB, and if a GR owned a business that sold appropriate brushes, I would want to know about it.

The difference, to me, is that the GR in my hypothetical is a regular reader of this Tohu Bohu, which Mr. Syring is not. There isn't any reason to believe that Mr. Syring will come back and answer any questions that I might have about his company, or that he will contribute to any other discussion on any other topic. He is an outsider, and I infer that his motives do not involve helping or informing us, just getting our money (or, potentially, services, I suppose).

And yet... There are GRs who do not post comments, and they are part of this community as well. There is no minimum activity requirement here; you are welcome to browse and leave (although of course I would prefer you to comment). In my hypothetical case, a GR might well never have commented before simply because she never had anything she wanted to post, but when we suddenly began discussing her area of expertise, she couldn't let the opportunity pass. I would want this GR to take that opportunity, and I would hope that she would find herself more comfortable posting more often, and becoming part of our little gang of twenty-or-so.

Given that the comment was just pasted in here, as it was many other places, I don't think that's going to happen. I think that's why I am so cranky about Mr. Syring; he raised my hopes for another GR here, and did so cynically and with interest only in my pocketbook. Well, the contents of the pocketbook. Really, just money, of which there is very little in my pocketbook, but, you know, Schenectady.
Also, Jed, nice catch on the [x and y] are behind [z] construction. It's also written as if his z is already known to us, but we didn't know that x and y were behind it. In fact, his company wasn't mentioned in the article, so the information about who was behind it didn't so much interest me as perplex me. But I'm only one reader, perhaps many were interested.

All good points.

I agree that it seems likely that Mr. Syring is uninformed about blogging norms.

The difference, to me, is that the GR in my hypothetical is a regular reader of this Tohu Bohu

I think that's part of it, but (for me) not all of it. Fairly often, I get comments in my blog (often on older entries) from people who aren't regular readers, who were searching for something online and came across my entry and decided to comment. Some of those comments are informing me and my readers about a service or product that might be of interest to us given the topic of the entry.

And I actually think that's fine in many cases. Some of my criteria are:

1. Must be relevant to the topic of the entry.

2. Must give a convincing impression of having been written by hand, by someone who has actually read my entry. (Which ideally involves phrasing that refers to the content of my entry.)

3. Should have a friendly and informative tone rather than an advertising or bragging tone. This correlates well with what you said about inferring that "his motives do not involve helping or informing us."

4. It's better if it points to at least some free service or information, rather than (or in addition to) a commercial service or information source.

There are obviously big gray areas. I have to make a judgment call each time this happens, to decide whether or not to allow the comment, and I can't claim that I'm entirely consistent. And my criteria are stricter for older entries (where I have to explicitly choose to publish the comment) than for newer ones (where I would have to explicitly choose to unpublish it).

As for answering questions, at least Mr. Syring left an email address (though I'm dubious about whether it will actually work as given). He also provided a web link, but it's broken because he didn't specify an absolute URL.

...I should mention that there've been a couple of times when someone has posted a comment of this sort on my journal, and I've mocked it, and then the person has actually come back to read responses. So, Mr. Syring, if you do come back here, I hope you'll take this conversation as providing some helpful pointers on ways to improve your future attempts to let people know about your site.

V: It's also written as if his z is already known to us, but we didn't know that x and y were behind it. Yeah, good point. I was assuming (having not read the original article you pointed to) that the article mentioned some of the x and y, so they were in some sense known to be good, but I agree that the sentence construction in question does usually indicate that z is what's already known to the reader.

No spamming intended! There is, as the 209 NYT web comments to Lewin's article demonstrate, a large community of people who care very deeply about the nationally important topic raised in that NYT article - and few more than the group of well known subject experts who formed Advanta.net.

Our motives are indeed helping and informing; Advanta.net constitutes the first vehicle through which teachers and young students _everywhere_ can receive, with a very high degree of "touch", the same mathematics education received by their peers in the top-education-ranked countries in the world.

With best regards to the blog readers,

Erik Syring

without a link to a powerpoint slideshow, how can we know you're really behind your product 110%?

You still owe me $5000 you stole from me. Dont think you will never get away

[This appears to be addressed to Mr. Syring above, not to YHB.]

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.