President's Message

AMTE's President Reflects on the Life and Work of Thomas Carpenter

Tom Carpenter passed away on August 7, 2018 at the age of 78 due to Parkinson’s disease. Tom was my advisor and first mentor, and because of the contributions he made to mathematics teacher education, I will provide a brief retrospective of his career.

Tom spent most of his influential career as Professor of Mathematics Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, after serving brief stints at Boston University and San Diego State University. He was a national leader in mathematics education, and he leaves behind an immense record of research and a long list of scholars who have been influenced by him. His many contributions include serving as editor of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education and serving as the director for the Diversity in Mathematics Education (DiME) Center. In 2004 he was honored with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Early in his career, Tom studied children’s mathematical thinking, paying attention to students’ ways of reasoning during problem solving.  Tom’s colleague, Eliz Fennema, challenged him to find a means by which to make his research on children’s thinking useful to teachers, a venture they eventually undertook together. After struggling to develop curriculum units, they eventually decided to share the research information with teachers without explicitly telling the teachers how to use the information. Tom frequently noted the importance of that decision in the development of Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI).

Although CGI is often thought of as a mathematics teaching approach that draws upon students’ informal reasoning, remember that it was first a research program. Rich research programs give rise to other important work, and much has blossomed from Tom and Eliz’s original work, including, but not limited to, research on students’ understandings of early number, place value, fractions, integers, and early algebra as well as research on teachers’ beliefs, teachers’ noticing, and issues of equity. Although I believe that these areas of research would have existed without Tom, I also believe that his influence has dramatically affected their development.

Tom believed that understanding mathematics is a basic human right, and he worked tirelessly to increase access to high-level mathematics for all students—particularly those traditionally underserved by U.S. schools because of the students' economic, linguistic, or racial backgrounds. This commitment was foundational to his work with teachers, which often involved long-term partnerships. Tom also had deep respect for teachers’ expertise and the complexity of their jobs. As such, he viewed teachers as collaborators in research, and CGI was one of the early projects on which teachers were included in research meetings, advisory boards, and conference presentations. I remember the pride with which Tom listened to the teachers during presentations, not because they were sharing what the researchers had told them to share but because the teachers spoke from their own experiences and passion about the manner in which they were supporting every child in their classrooms.

Tom was a lifelong learner, and long after he retired he continued to visit classrooms to listen to and learn from teachers and children. He also listened to graduate students and to other researchers. He has had a major impact on the field. Scores of graduate students have worked with Tom, and tens of thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of children have experienced CGI. He will be remembered for his respect for all people, his sense of humor, his intellectual generosity, his deep thinking, and his love for and commitment to his family.

Serving as AMTE president has accentuated my belief in the importance of community.  I feel the AMTE community palpably, not only when at our conference but also through AMTE’s publications, webinars, website, and my work with the AMTE Board of Directors. Tom Carpenter understood the importance of communities, and he was the center of a rich intellectual community.  His community will continue to flourish because Tom, being the ultimate educator, left graduate students and teachers who, while loving their mentor, were able to take what they learned from Tom and forge their own creative and innovative paths. The AMTE community lost a great mathematics teacher educator, but we are stronger for his life’s work and for the passion with which he carried out that work.