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Math expert draws critics

Speaker at forum used offensive term in 5-year-old e-mail

Monday, October 21, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

If the atmosphere surrounding Thursday's Pittsburgh Public Schools math forum isn't heated enough, now a 5-year-old e-mail message has surfaced in which one of the forum speakers used the word "pickaninnies."

Wayne Bishop, a math professor at California State University in Los Angeles, acknowledged writing the e-mail that included the word.

But he said at the time, he used what he admits was an offensive term to describe how he believed groups with math education views he opposes think.

In the June 24, 1997, message to other educators following a debate on math standards in California, Bishop wrote:

"Seriously, the day was such as you described. ... Too many teachers, ACSA (American Council of School Administrators?) and 'experts' with the standard 'developmentally appropriate' form of racism. You know, little pickaninnies just don't learn math like we do."

"I don't think that way," said Bishop, who is white. "[The e-mail] is not insulting little black kids, it's insulting people who make assumptions that they don't learn like everybody else. I was deprecating that idea and using deliberately inflammatory language to do it. This was supposed to be private. If I had known it was going to have worldwide circulation, I wouldn't have used the word."

Bishop added that he believed the e-mail has surfaced because of "nervousness on the part of the [Pittsburgh school district] administration that my testimony is going to be damaging."

"They are doing what is the easiest way to address it, which is to deprecate the source," he said.

Bishop and Stanford University math professor James Milgram, who also will participate in Thursday's 6:30 p.m. forum on math education, are known nationally for their criticisms of math reform programs like Everyday Math, which is used in Pittsburgh public elementary schools, and Connected Math, which is taught in city district middle schools.

Bishop and Milgram will be talking to the school board about how to evaluate the effectiveness of math programs. They will be joined by Philip Uri Treisman, a math professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Philip Daro, executive director of the New Standard Project at the University of California, both of whom have been supportive of math reform curricula.

The session with the four educators was scheduled because members of the board's five-member majority believe the current elementary and middle school math programs don't teach youngsters basic skills, despite assertions to the contrary by school officials.

Board President Jean Fink also believes that Bishop's 1997 e-mail has surfaced because school officials fear the possibility of change, though she was "appalled that anyone would use that language in this day and age."

"I would agree that he meant that in a derogatory way about the attitudes of some other people. Still, he could have phrased it a little better," she said. "Of course, this is the queen of misspeaking talking. But that's not a word I would use."

Fink was referring to an incident last year in which she used the phrase "your people" when arguing with board member Mark Brentley Sr. about plans to reopen three schools that had been closed. Fink, who is white, said later she meant the constituents of Brentley's voting district, not black people. Brentley is black.

But Fink said the circulation of the e-mail was "a move to discredit Bishop by people who are afraid of what he is going to say."

"This is getting ugly," she said. "I expected a mathematics discussion to be on a higher academic plane. This debate has gone way beyond where I expected it to go."

Such arguments don't wash with Brentley and board member Alex Matthews. Neither believes Bishop's explanation that he was describing the views of others and not his own.

"People write the way they feel and the fact that it was private offends me even more because that's the way he thinks," said Matthews, who also is black. "He would have made a reference that that's their wording, not his. But that's not what he said."

Matthews and Brentley also dismissed charges by Bishop and Fink that district administrators are trying to discredit Bishop because of fear about what he might say.

"What he has said discredits him," Brentley said. "You now have a man who has shown that he has a different opinion about the ability of African American children. Timing is one thing, but if this is true, we can't change his opinion. He said it and we're actually going to pay him to come here."

In fact, Ellen Lee of San Diego, said she sent Pittsburgh school officials information about Bishop and Milgram to expose their tactics in math education debates.

Lee, who is a member of the California Mathematics Council of the California State Board of Education, forwarded Bishop's 1997 e-mail to Pittsburgh along with a letter by a Maine math professor accusing Milgram and his supporters of using strong-arm methods to ban a certain math curriculum in Maine.

Lee said she keeps abreast of math education debates across the country. When she heard Bishop was coming to Pittsburgh, she said she believed officials should be made aware that "a tactic of Wayne Bishop is that when something comes out positive about a math reform program, he attacks it."

Like Brentley and Matthews, Lee said she does not believe Bishop would have used the word "pickaninnies" if it did not reflect how he thinks.

"A tactic to accuse someone of thinking in that way because they don't agree with you is deplorable," Lee said. "In Wayne's mind, that's the definition of someone who doesn't agree professionally with him. We don't go around thinking in those terms. If someone would use that word in print, then something else is going on that person's mind."

Bishop says Lee also circulated his e-mail in 1997 during the height of testimony about math standards in California, when he and others successfully pushed for standards that endorsed more traditional math programs rather than reform models.

"It's exactly the same thing as when it was circulated in California as a way of discrediting the idea that clear standards are essential," he said. "They were trying to discredit [us] by saying, 'They are a racist group.' "

Bishop, who also makes a point of mentioning that he and his wife adopted a girl from a Mexican orphanage as their daughter, added that in 1997 he had to explain the e-mail to a California State University committee appointed by then-Provost Margaret Hartman. While the committee's report to Hartman wasn't favorable, Bishop said the provost dropped the matter and he did not face any discipline.

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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