Language as an Impediment to Improving Mathematics Education

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education was:

Remedial Educators Contest Reformers’ ‘Rhetoric of Failure’ (

This is a good article, worth the time to read and think about.  I was drawn to the phrase “Rhetoric of Failure”, a phrase that Uri Treisman used in a presentation at the NADE conference.  However, I’ve been bothered by another aspect.

Think about the word ‘reformers’ in the title … the word is being used to describe the groups (mostly external) who are trying to impose a different design for getting students in to credit-bearing courses (Florida, Connecticut, etc) with the most common strategy being the avoidance of developmental education.

One can not reform a system by avoiding it.

Reformers are those who seek significant changes in an existing system.  I am a reformer; perhaps you are.  We seem to have little power to resist the revolutionaries who want to avoid the system.  Part of this lack of power is likely due to the fact that few people outside of our profession know of the reform work we’ve been doing.  Sure, many have heard of the Carnegie projects (Statway™ and Quantway™); as a high-profile endeavor, that work has been widely publicized outside of mathematics education.  However, few (very few) outside of our profession have heard of our effective work at truly reforming developmental mathematics — the New Life project.

Do the destroyers know that we have a better model that will accelerate students to credit-bearing courses based on a professional re-design of the curriculum combined with a modernization of teaching?  How many people know that there are far more New Life implementations than any grant funded work, past or present?

Calling a group ‘reformers’ is assigning them an intent to improve a system; when revolutionaries make drastic changes, a better word would be ‘destroyers’.  Now, sometimes we need revolutions … sometimes we need destruction.  As I understand the views in the social sciences about change, revolutions and destruction are usually ineffective at producing long-term change.  I know of no reason why mathematics education would be any different.

As long as the ‘reform’ word is used for revolutionary changes, improving mathematics education will be very limited; we are, in fact, likely to regress (which is the most common result of a revolution).  We need to articulate our visions for reform with clear statements of our rationale; we need to challenge statements that attribute ‘reform’ to a revolutionary process.  We need to be comfortable telling external groups that imposing change (a bullying behavior) is not going to fix a problem; revolutions seldom work.

Calling something a ‘reform’ does not make it a good thing.

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  • By schremmer, March 24, 2014 @ 11:59 am

    Developmental education has been around under one name or the other—I can remember when it was called remedial and I understand that these days, the term “foundational” is making strong headway—for some forty years and each new incarnation claims to be “it”. And then, eventually, another comes up. And another. Ad nauseam.

    The beast has never worked and by now it should be obvious why: it cannot.


  • By Jack Rotman, March 25, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    Providing a new label does not change the nature of ‘it’; however, the ‘it’ being discussed was never designed for a purpose in college. Copying school mathematics was expedient but lacked validity. Before we conclude ‘it’ cannot work, we need to try solutions with validity in the context. Many of us believe that the New Life model is a valid solution.

  • By schremmer, March 29, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

    The telling thing here is that the *content* of the “it” have never been discussed. Not once. Not even here. So, literally, what are we talking about?

    Deciding whether or not the “New Life model” is a solution should not be a matter of “belief” and would seem to require that the problem be at least stated.

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