The Open Letter to
James Milgram The Inciter

Professor James Milgram has been around for some time. In 1996 he left his place at Stanford and without invitation came to California, introduced himself as a expert of Education and began making claims, which had no basis, and he didn't have any real experience with the education of K-12. He strode in on reputation as a mathematician alone. Now... that reputation was fairly solid at that time, and as he was sure would happen, the people he approached endowed reputation with more than it warranted.

The Math Wars had begun several years later, and this was his next target. On reputation he could only do so much. Very soon other tactics were introduced to the traditionalists side -- tactics no one would expect academics to use on each other.

September 20, 2002

Professor James Milgram
Department of Mathematics
Stanford University
Stanford, CA


I am replying to you with an open letter. Events of this past week or so have dismayed me and brought me to ask if my views on democracy in America are out of line with those of my peers. Though I feel that people have the legal right to express even extreme forms of dissent, I also believe that there is a slow decrease in our civility to one another, making it much more difficult to bring about consensus and accomplish common goals. In the range between civility and the extremity of legal expression is a gray area where all of us react negatively or positively. I need to ask if many people would react as I have. First I'd like to outline as objectively as I can the events to which I am reacting.

I have been outside the US for a full year and only returned about a month ago. As I arrived I was invited to attend a meeting called by the Commissioner of Education of the State of Maine at the request of a small group of citizens of the state. I accepted. Behind closed doors the group related personal experiences. Then a spokesperson read an argument premised on a view of mathematics education that quoted you frequently. The rationale was based first upon this view and second on an argument that outsiders had exerted undue influence upon local school districts. The statement concluded with a set of nonnegotiable demands placed before the commissioner. The fact that the demands were nonnegotiable was reinforced in clear terms when some present were incredulous.

The list of demands required the removal of a set of specific curricula from the schools of Maine, the termination of any state funding used to support districts and teachers implementing these curricula, and the strict severance of any relationship of the commissioner with organizations working statewide to support districts and teachers implementing these (and consequently other) curricula.

Prior to this statement, some of the group individually related their own personal experiences in the schools. One person was a state legislator, two were school board members, one was a teacher, and two were parents active in the schools. Two had withdrawn their children from the public schools and one had found alternative schooling for a child.

Everyone in the group was very well prepared, articulate, and experienced in governance. In other words, in anyforum they would be able to express their position clearly. Further, the school board members, teacher, and legislator had the power of the vote. All wore a badge that I had to have explained to me later. It was thereby clear that this group was a "political action committee" or PAC.

Two days later I received an email from you, 3,000 miles away in a distant state. I believe this is the first written personal communication I have ever received from you. You told me that two from the group wrote that I "communicated 'disdain' for both me and Dick" and asked me to "clarify what was actually said." Very shortly after this I received an email from Dick Askey, about 1,500 miles away also in another state, with more particular questions about mathematics curricula but also asking what was said in this meeting with the commissioner.

Then I received from the commissioner a letter written to the governor
by a spokesperson for the group. The letter begins by asking the governor for help working "constructively with the Commissioner," stating that in the meeting I attended they were met with "hostile confrontation from the Commissioner rather than constructive dialog."

The letter went on to relate their view of events in Maine and to back up their position with arguments that can be found on the "Mathematically Correct" website. Since I was present at the meeting, I think the governor and commissioner sent the letter to me as a courtesy.

Next I would like to ask you, Dick, and others about democracy in America.

Here are my reactions to these events. Having lived about 30 years in Minnesota I know school governance differs greatly from state to state. Maine is a very democratic state, frequently using the town meeting to make decisions. Mainers are fiercely independent, so our town and school administrators and teachers are very practiced in hearing an extraordinarily wide range of views on matters like education and from this wide range of views distilling sound conclusions. In addition, many towns do not have schools and some have only elementary schools.

These towns must negotiate over property tax, education, and power to obtain education for their youngsters in neighboring tax districts.

Mainers are very able to understand the power of influence and money. I have no doubt after meeting this group that in their own districts they made their case well. Further, I have no doubt that those who made the decisions factored the group's arguments, both the educational argument and the argument about undue influence, into their decision. This decision did not agree with what the group wanted.

Frequently I have been asked for advice on school decisions. Because I am a professor my views are often not mainstream, so that frequently these decisions do not agree with my view. However, I was heard and the people making the decisions worked carefully. So my response was to roll up my sleeves, sit on classroom floors with children, work with teachers in their professional development activities, serve on committees that promoted interest in mathematics education, and seek both private and federal funding to help the children and teachers of my state. My wife and I would never have dreamed of pulling our children out of public school because things were not going our way. Had we opted out of the system, we certainly would not return to attack what hard working citizens had labored to craft.

Am I wrong to feel that others should pitch in when a result is democratically reached, or, at least, not attempt to overturn the process from the outside? Am I wrong to feel that people who find that they cannot stay and live with a decision should not come back to destroy what they left behind? What do other people think about this kind of activity?

Somewhere along the line, the members of the group who visited the commissioner found each other over varying districts and, judging by your email, apparently over varying states all around our country. Some of those in Maine formed a PAC and began working within the bureaucracy, behind closed doors, to alter decisions so carefully worked out by due process in local districts. To the outside world (e.g. the letter to the governor) this group presents a reasonable and rational image. Behind closed doors they present non-negotiable demands to appointed officials.

I know that these actions happen all the time, but they still make me feel uncomfortable. Is it all right to feel uncomfortable in the face of demands that appointed officials tell local districts to overturn decisions? Am I wrong to feel uncomfortable about this kind of governance in the US for our locally controlled schools? Am I out of step with my peers?

Then I received your email. I know absolutely nothing about the meetings called by the Commissioner of Education of the State of California. Even though I grew up near your home in California and raised my family in Minnesota, I have no business entering the politics of these states. I am a citizen of Maine. Even though I have years of experience with children, teachers, educational research, and the role of the federal government, I do not pretend any expertise on school education beyond that immediately useful to the people of my state, my professional organizations, and occasionally the federal government. If I am mistreated, misquoted, or even quoted correctly in a closed-door meeting with the Commissioner of Education of the State of California then that is none of my business. I am sure I will survive. My life and my stake in school education are not in California. They are in Maine.

Am I off base to feel that maybe some sleight of hand has happened here, that democratic processes are not working as they should, that probably I shouldn't have received an email from you because you should not even know about meetings called by Maine state officials? 

What do other people think?

Aaron Brown on Newsnight recently said that in a free country like ours we should expect a very wide range of views (most of those are probably already held among the very diverse people of Maine). He went on to say it is very troubling that this wide range no longer represents a continuous spectrum of views, but rather that we have become polarized. The only views are extreme views. My own belief is that decisions should be reached in forums open to those who have a stake. Further, that rightly or wrongly, when a decision is reached, we all have an obligation to make it work. If we find we cannot, we have the right to opt out peacefully. But once that choice is made, we should not reach back to destroy that which we left.

There is a fundamental assumption here. Human beings, even groups of human beings, have a right to be wrong solong as they arrive at their decision through democratic means open to stakeholders. One reason for this is that 'wrongness' is in the eye of the beholder. In education, I have found that textbooks are not the major issue. Some make my job harder, some easier. Time and the ballot box tend to correct our mistakes. Is this an unconventional view? Am I out of step with democracy in America? I am asking these questions of the people of Maine, the educators I have known and worked with, the members of my chosen profession, and of you and Dick. How many others have had an experience like mine with you, Jim?

Now I would like to answer your two main questions.
First, you want to know what was said in the meeting. Other than the meager details about the meeting given in this letter, I think you should ask the commissioner. Second, do I disdain you? No I don't. Do I disdain the group who met with the commissioner? No I don't.

Here is my opinion of you. A hundred years from now there will be graduate students working to understand the most recent proof of a theorem of Milgram and wondering who he was and what he was like. I don't hold that view of very many. However, I believe that we, as mathematicians, are not prepared through our craft to assume the role of national leadership in mathematics education. Expertise in one of these fields does not automatically transfer to expertise in the other.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my many years of working hand in hand with mathematics educators in a broad variety of circumstances, I do not feel qualified to call myself an expert in mathematics education, and I don't think you are, either. I am quite concerned that you don't share my qualms in this regard, especially when I directly experience the tactics that you seem to condone and advise (given your very rapid email to me) on what appears to be a national scale.

I am sorry that you, as a leading mathematician and in the same profession as mine, have made me so sad about the state of democracy in America.


Thomas R. Berger
Carter Professor of Mathematics
and Computer Science
Professor Richard Askey, University of Wisconsin
Commissioner Duke Albanese
Governor Angus King

So, what was heard in that meeting? Some research has uncovered an account of those meetings

"... Instead of saying "Give the value for s when r = 6 and justify it", it should have said, "Give *a* value for s when r = 6 and justify it." Others of the considerable collection of essentially isomorphic problems that he used to demonstrate the horrible state of mathematics in the schools I agreed with him more on, having been annoyed by such problems on standardized tests when I was in grade school. 

On the other hand, he ridiculed the whole idea of  mathematics as a science that uses patterns, and poured scorn on a statement in one of the sets of standards to the effect that students should be allowed to experiment with and justify ideas ("Never knew math was an experimental science, did you? (chuckle, chuckle)"). It caused me to wonder how he managed to do his research without generalizing (i.e., following up on a pattern) or checking to see which version of a statement might work (i.e., experimenting with it.) 

 The evening session managed to be worse. This session was the centerpiece of the visit -- a presentation directed to the members of "Where's the Math?" (the local branch of Mathematically Correct) and the folks they had invited with an eye to recruiting them. With a sympathetic audience that they really could wow with their academic credentials, he and Klein ratcheted up their sarcasm and very successfully swept away any possibility of disagreement by producing a caricature of any opposing view and lampooning it for laughs. 

I was especially impressed by Klein's method of disposing of anyone subscribing to constructivist theories as being a romantic who believed, like Rousseau, that a child's knowledge should be left in freedom to grow on its own, like the trees in the forest. He got a good laugh out of that each time he used it. I was struck by the parallels between his use of the word "Constructivist"  and the use of the word "Communist" in my youth.

In fact, that parallel became even more striking at the end, with  Milgram and Klein's exhortation to "Where's the Math": 
  • Go to the legislature and make them get rid of everyone in the OSPI from the Superintendent herself on down who has in any way been involved in the past ten years' work on the state standards and the WASL. 
  • Get rid of the standards and replace them with a set of acceptable standards. Get rid of any vestige of any "Reform" curricula (they didn't quite say to burn them). 
  • Make sure that no one in power has been involved in any curriculum development or had anything to do with the National Council of Teacher of Mathematics.
  • Make sure that no decision is in any way influenced by any educational research or anything else that might have been said by anyone from a College of Education.
  • Install a really good set of textbooks (currently Milgram is favoring ones now being produced in Russia, which are even better than the revered Singapore curriculum
  •  Be sure to keep all power in the hands of mathematicians and good teachers. It was implicit in the instructions that mathematicians who do not agree are classified as mathematics educators (a rung or two below the night custodian), and teachers who have any sympathy with constructivist notions are not good teachers.
The focus, strikingly, was on destruction, with an almost complete lack of discussion of its follow-up. There were frequent references to the weak mathematical background of American teachers, especially as compared to  countries like Hungary and Singapore, but no hint of a suggestion how the newly empowered mathematicians and classroom teachers could deal with that (very real) problem. And most notably, in the entire day's discourse, in all its forms, there was no reference to what might best enable children to learn. He appears to believe that, with a really good textbook based on world-class standards, children will learn mathematics by sitting, rapt, and absorbing everything the teacher and the book tell them. 

These  are the men you will entrust your children to.  Men who believe that Soviet Russia  had it all worked out in the 50s.