Standing individually, together: A day on Capitol Hill

April 2023

Yvonne Lai

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Rather than March, it was February that came in like a lion. On February 1, I received an invitation from the AMS Office of Government Relations to fly to Washington, D.C., to discuss mathematics education in a panel briefing of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology and staffers. Although the weather outside was sunny and 41°F (warm for Nebraska), a chill swept over me, with forecasts of anxiety and fear, and a chance of excitement. 

The advocacy group STEM Ed Coalition organized the panel. They named it STEM 101 for the 118th Congress. My charge was to represent mathematics education. The other panelists were all industry or non-profit leaders based in Chicago and Washington, DC. When I found out who sat on the panel, I realized I needed to represent teachers, teacher educators, higher education, and rural and suburban education. The other panelists were all industry or non-profit leaders based in Chicago and Washington, DC. But how could I do all this, and in 5 minutes and a Q&A? The teacher workforce is one of the largest in the country. The last time I looked into the labor statistics, I concluded that the order of magnitude of teachers is similar to the order of magnitude of IT workers. Like most researchers, I only work in a small slice of my field. It is virtually impossible for anyone to be familiar with all issues that all teachers encounter and that all researchers work on, in any finite or perhaps even infinite length of time — and I had 19 days. 

When a problem is ill-defined, we must create structure. I couldn’t survey all teachers and literature, but I could get the pulse of teachers at least in my own state and a few from nearby states. I reflected on interactions in my own community with teachers in the past few years. I asked my university’s Center for Science, Mathematics, and Teacher Education, which runs one of the largest graduate programs for teachers in the country, for names of regional mathematics teachers to contact. I also sent out queries to friends in teacher education to ask for names of teachers who might take a last-minute request for a call. I then spent many commutes and evenings on the phone.

As for a sense for the perspective of university mathematics educators, I drew from work with the Executive Committee of the Special Interest Group of the MAA on Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching. We have spent the last 9 months randomly sampling our membership with invitations to visit our monthly Executive Committee meetings. Our purpose is to know what are the concerns and needs of our 200+ members, who are mathematics faculty invested in teacher education. 

From moderating four panels on mathematics education policy in the past year–on curricular pathways; the California Math Framework; clarifying issues of “tracking” and “de-tracking”; and on equity, standards, and politics–I have been getting a feel for the kinds of questions and concerns that can arise from broader communities invested in mathematics education. Each of these panels had more than 100 registrants, and one had over 1000. I could use my interactions in these spaces as a rough model for positing concerns to address on the Hill. Even if I wasn’t on C-SPAN (for this was a briefing, not a hearing), and the session was not recorded, I wanted to make as much as I could of the minutes I had. I wanted to do right by students, teachers, and teacher educators.  

As I prepared notes on teacher shortage, and arguments for the importance of mathematics to human flourishing, equity, and the workforce, I thought about the stories I had heard in the past year and how to distill the research I was reading for the first or second time. Then, two days before my flight, I had a phone call with an old mentor. She asked me–why aren’t you talking about what you are already an expert on? I said–because that’s not what I’m hearing. She insisted that I take some time to think about the question– “Why are they lucky to have you?”–and to lean into my personal scholarly strengths. I was the only person on the panel to have spent much if any time in a K-12 classroom, and the only teacher educator. I was the only mathematics education researcher, and the only one from a mathematics department. In a time when the students who have suffered most in a pandemic need teachers’ expertise more than ever, someone needed to make the case for the professional knowledge used in teaching. 

On the plane to DC, I reviewed my notes on teacher shortage and the importance of mathematics. But I also revised the main argument of my statement. Now I planned to say: When we look for ways to address teacher shortage, we must make sure that any proposed solution ensures teachers who know mathematics and know how to teach mathematics. These are two potentially related but ultimately different forms of expertise. 

The next day, I began with a group meeting organized by the STEM Ed Coalition in Representative Alma Adams (D-NC 12th district) where we met her legislative assistant. Everyone there wanted better STEM education and opportunities for all children and adults. And everyone there diagnosed the challenge differently, focused on our particular areas of expertise and experience. Others brought up science fairs, accessibility of technology, and internships for those returning to work (“returnships”). Here, I brought up teacher shortage and the fact that even researchers who write Annenberg Institute reports must resort to Google and network news. States are—as Dan Goldhaber put it in a conversation—looking at the rearview mirror, at data that is at least 1-2 years out of date. But part of directing resources where they are needed is knowing at present where they are needed. The legislative assistant seemed to make eye contact with me here, and observed that resourcing and asking states to do more data mining was something in the purview of the government.

Visiting offices seems like a game of small victories made more out of optimism than promises. I will never know whether anything will ever be done in Congress about data mining for where districts need teachers. But I know that a staffer wrote something down and spoke to me about this possibility, and that she did not do the same for everything said. I can be optimistic that every drop of water means something, and be optimistic that other drops of water may eventually fall in the same bucket, if not from me, from someone else.

Next, I went to a meeting in the office of Representative Mike Flood (R-NE, 1st District). We asked his staffer to thank Rep. Flood for voting for H.R. 3588 Mathematical and Statistical Modeling Education Act— an act “To coordinate Federal research and development efforts focused on modernizing mathematics in STEM education through mathematical and statistical modeling, including data-driven and computational thinking, problem, project, and performance-based learning and assessment, interdisciplinary exploration, and career connections, and for other purposes.” An act, in other words, to support modernizing STEM education.

Picture of column author in front of Representative Mike Flood (R-NE)'s office.
In front of Representative Mike Flood (R-NE)’s office.

Whatever your views on incorporating more mathematical modeling, data, and statistics into mathematics education, I hope you can agree that there is good work in this area, and that money into mathematics education is needed. We hear so much of partisan politicization that it is easy to forget that the bills that make the headlines aren’t all the bills. The House passed this bill, 323-92. There was more bipartisan support than partisan nays.

The panel briefing of the Committee on Science, Space, & Technology Committee was next, on the 4th floor of the Rayburn House building. I sat on stage next to the Global Head of Corporate Affairs for Solidigm, the CEO of the Society for Women Engineers, and a Senior Director of Education Policy and Programs at Microsoft. The moderator was James Brown, of the Bose Public Affairs Group and the Executive Director of the STEM Ed Coalition. Throughout the audience were badges, each signifying that the person is a staffer either for a U. S. House Committee or a member.

Rhonda Foxx (Solidigm) argued that “Talent is everywhere; opportunity is not.” We need short-term solutions, such as reaching out to community colleges and diversifying boards and career fair placements. We also need long-term solutions, in the form of investments in PK-12 education. Allyson Knox (Microsoft) presented a case for cybersecurity and the need for resources to ensure that every community has access to cybersecurity expertise. Karen Horting (Society for Women Engineers) argued for the place of women in engineering and for “returnships” — internships for women (and non-women) re-entering the field after a hiatus, whether that hiatus is 2 years or 20 years.

As for my 5 minutes, I made the case that in a perfect world, and even in this imperfect world, we need more than warm bodies to fill our classrooms. We need mathematics teachers who know mathematics and know mathematics teaching, and that these two domains of expertise are different domains both critically needed to carry out the work of teaching. This knowledge, however those in the field might want to conceive it, is fundamentally necessary for education and equity efforts.

Panelists speaking at desk in front of audience
Panelists for the briefing “STEM 101 for the 118th Congress”, organized by the STEM Ed Coalition for the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology.

Of the Q&A following our statements, two questions stood out to me. First, someone asked Foxx what elected representatives could be doing. She suggested, “When CEOs come to your office, ask them: ‘How diverse is your board? What is your company doing to diversify the workforce?’” I wondered what mathematics department leadership would be able to say to those questions. Mathematics departments don’t have boards, but we do have leadership. The courses we teach, and how we teach them, have the potential to reduce or enlarge equity gaps, and to potentially attract or turn away future mathematics majors. 

Second, someone asked how we can use technology to reach more students in more areas. I have the impression that when thinking of educational interventions, many people like to think in binary terms: Is it good or bad? Is it effective or ineffective? But to truly make progress, I would argue that we need to look beyond the binary, and at the conditions of use and context. Education is fundamentally a human endeavor. It’s unlikely that there is a silver bullet that transcends personal interactions. The best technology in the world doesn’t make a difference if you don’t know where to find it, or how to use it even if you do find it.  Technology can make a huge difference in the lives of some, but it is a mistake to place technology–rather than people–as drivers of progress. I think of programs like the Algebra Project, BEAM, or the Calculus Project. These programs make a difference because they have people on the ground who have face-to-face, 3-dimensional, long-term relationships with students and parents and community leaders.

I ended the day with meetings at the office of Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) and then the office of Senator Mike Young (R-IN). (I will note that the AMS tried to but ultimately could not schedule a meeting with the office of Senator Pete Ricketts (R-NE)–he was recently elected and is short on staff.) I made the case for mathematics education and more specifically, the Mathematical and Statistical Modeling Education Act in a few ways. To secure our future in science and engineering, we need students who know how to use mathematics to model the world around them. To check instrumentation, energy and manufacturing companies rely on mathematics. To harness farming technology, the modern farmer needs to make sense of a lot of data, fundamentally relying on mathematics. To do any of this, we need resources to support the teachers who teach the students who go out into the world. Based on how the staffers straightened up and asked follow-up questions, I can hope that these arguments landed.

In each room that day, I felt I had no social models to guide me. In teaching, research meetings, and committee meetings, I strive to form communities who can collaborate across differences. I look for ways to surface disagreement and to find common ground. Differences benefit us, because they make any consensus reasoning more robust. These sorts of collaborations happen in politics, but over a longer time span than I had. In this working day, the purpose could not be consensus; that was outside the scope of possibilities. There was neither time nor space for the kind of in-depth interactions needed for surfacing and reckoning with disagreement. There was only context for stating each of our agendas as concisely as we could, knowing that we were all there because we cared about STEM education.

I went in imagining that I would have a grand synthesis of all the issues I heard. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I found another sense of synthesis. Throughout the day, I drew from conversations and reading from the past year. I broached ideas where they seemed appropriate, underlining them with stories. Just as the other people in the room with me each stated their points without asking for harmony among them, I raised my points in each room without looking for a single narrative across them all. The synthesis of the day was finding a home for all the points I had hoped to bring up. These homes were in different rooms with different people. Yet the homes formed a street because they each served the argument for the need for professional knowledge in teaching. My street of ideas, with others’ ideas, formed a neighborhood, whose purpose was to improve STEM education. We and our ideas each stood on their own, together.

I would be remiss to not give huge thanks to everyone who supported this visit. Shelby Aaberg, Leile Anderson, Danielle Buhrman, Cindy Cattey, Philip Keller, Reuben Keller, Josh Males, Sarah Murmann, Libby Oliver, Dan Schaben–mathematics teachers and district leaders who offered insight through texts, emails, and phone calls to help me understand what teaching is like right now and how teacher shortage impacts your daily lives. Dan Goldhaber and Tuan Nguyen, for impromptu zoom and phone calls, about their scholarship on teacher shortages. Michelle Homp and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Science, Math, & Computer Education, for connecting me to teachers. Tyler Kloefkorn, for the invitation and guidance. Sol Friedberg, Ji Son, and Will Thomas, for helping me sharpen my argument. Deborah Ball, for her insistence to rely on my own expertise and her ever-present insistence to always have an argument. Sarah Zuckerman, for talking about Nebraska education and funding. Cody Patterson and Edward Early, for connections to teachers and former Congressional staff. Alex Saltman, who gave me advice on how to frame arguments on the hill.