Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Mathematician Goes to Washington

By Katherine Crowley

Senator Al Franken and Katherine Crowley.
Photo Credit: Katherine Crowley
In December 2015, President Obama signed into law a replacement for the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act. The new law addresses a wide range of education issues, from curriculum to testing to teacher evaluation. In the section on testing requirements, a new provision allows states to choose computer-adaptive—rather than pencil-and-paper—tests to meet federal testing requirements.

Five years earlier, as an American Mathematical Society congressional fellow, I was putting this new testing bill together for my boss, Senator Al Franken. It was supposed to be easy. The bill had been requested by principals, teachers, and parents, promised shorter test times and higher quality feedback, and cost nothing. I had worked on more controversial issues for the senator and felt lucky this time to have such a clear path forward. My relief was naive. If not for my experience as a mathematics professor, I might not have succeeded.

When trying to pass a bill on Capitol Hill, the most productive thing you can do is anticipate who will oppose you. Then call them, and listen.

That is how I learned that advocates for students with disabilities, who have worked fiercely for decades to ensure equal access to education for these students, had legitimate concerns. They wondered whether these computer-adaptive tests—which, like the GRE, ask harder questions if you answer correctly, and easier questions if you answer incorrectly—might unfairly characterize students with less common learning paths. The senator did not want to proceed without the support of these advocates, and their opposition was firm.

Luckily, when you work for a U.S. senator, everyone calls you back. So I was able to talk to the mathematicians designing the computer tests and learn the exact algorithms that determine how students’ abilities are measured. Then, drawing on years of teaching experience, I translated that information for the advocates. The advocates endorsed the bill and even adopted computer-adaptive testing as a top policy goal.

Most days on Capitol Hill, I didn’t use mathematics; I did policy. I worked on student loan reform, which eliminated federal subsidies to banks and saved taxpayers $60 billion. I worked to ensure access to school meals for America’s poorest kids during the height of the recession. I secured cosponsors for the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would add civil rights protections against discrimination in schools for LGBT students.

These projects and others meant preparing the senator for meetings, advising him on votes, building support for his legislative ideas, and crafting strategies to pass these ideas into law. It was incredibly exciting.

Why a Mathematician?

But what is the point of having a mathematician do this? One reason is that the mathematics community has a lot at stake in national policy. Congress will write STEM bills whether there are scientists and mathematicians in the room or not. Letters for mathematics and science funding can easily go unnoticed; I was in a position to make sure they crossed the senator’s desk. When the senator’s support for one bill hinged on understanding the science behind it, I tapped into my network of science policy fellows to find that expertise. There are critical moments when it really matters that we, as a discipline, are there.

The best reason to work in policy as a mathematician is because it appeals to you. Whether in service of our discipline or our country, you will negotiate agreements that improve the lives of millions of Americans. The mathematics in which you’ve invested so much time and passion will play a role, sometimes directly, but often indirectly, because you will have to be clever. You’ll strategize, you’ll get cornered, you’ll have your arms twisted. Sometimes, you’ll succeed in outsmarting everyone anyway. To preserve a strong mathematics community, we need good mathematics, and we need good policy that supports it. Choose the path that inspires you, knowing how critical both pieces are.

Katherine Crowley worked in policy in Washington, D.C., both on Capitol Hill and at the Department of Energy. Her PhD in mathematics is from Rice University.