Why? Most Seattle students are receiving an inferior math education using math books and curriculum that will virtually insure they never achieve mastery in key mathematical subjects and thus will be unable to participate in careers that requires mathematical skills.
There are so many signs that a profound problem exists in this city. For example,
- Parents see their kids unable to master basic math skills. And they bring home math books that are nearly indecipherable to parents or other potential tutors.
- Nearly three quarters of Seattle Community College students require remediation in math.
- Over one hundred Seattle students are not able to graduate high school because they could not pass state-mandated math exams.
- Minority and economically disadvantaged students are not gaining ground in math.
Poor Math Curriculum is Still in Place
As I have noted in past blogs (and I am hardly the only one saying this), Seattle has extremely poor math curricula at all levels. Seattle Public Schools is using deficient math curricula in all grades, books that use the discovery approach, which pushes group work, writing essays about math, heavy calculator use, and spending inordinate time on extraneous topics (such as fractals and projections). Curricula that minimize the development of basic skills and rarely bring kids to mastery of essential topics.
Specifically, Seattle used Everyday Math in elementary schools, Connected Math Project (CMP2) for middle schools, Discovering Math in the high schools. These books don't teach many essential mathematical skills (like the use of fractions, long division, geometric proofs, to name only a few) and are NOT recommended by Washington State's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The State Board of Education found that Seattle's high school math series was "mathematically unsound."
Let's consider the Middle School math textbook series used in most Seattle Schools: CMP2. You would be hard pressed to find much math in it, with pages of prose and more writing assignments than expected in a math book. One of the assignments is to choose a "favorite" number and write an essay about it. Local TV meteorologist M.J. McDermott has finished a wonderful video about CMP2...click on it to see her analysis.
Reviews of CMP2 by mathematicians have been highly critical. For example, James Milgram, Professor of Mathematics at Stanford University noted: " standard algorithms are never introduced, not even for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions; precise definitions are never given; repetitive practice for developing skills, such as basic manipulative skills is never given."
But the book is worse than weak mathematically...it is patronizing to minorities, if not on the margin of being racist. The book is full of children of color that are having trouble with math. For example, Luis does not know how to use decimals (see below). There are MANY other examples of this. If you talk to advocates of books like this, they often talk about how minorities are not ready for the "regular" math. This is simply insulting: all parents want their kids to learn the mathematics required for success in the real world. Furthermore, such discovery books...heavy on language and writing... are more difficult for English as a Second Language children that have not yet developed the requisite English skills. The fact that Seattle's minority children are falling behind in math is consistent with the weaknesses I outline above and below.
M.J. McDermott has a viral video on some of the techniques used in Everyday Math (click on picture or link):
An important issue for Seattle's current math books is that they are not written in a way that allows a student to take them home and figure out what they need to know. You know what I mean: a careful description of the math algorithm followed by solved problems. You simply don't find these in Everyday Math and CMP2 in which students are supposed to "discover" algorithms themselves and where specially designed classroom activities are central. Similarly, parents or tutors can't figure out the lesson and help their kids.
The current Seattle math curricula is so poor that several schools went "rogue" and moved to better books, at first against district wishes (it is now "legal" for local Seattle schools to change books if they can get the funds). For example, many West Seattle schools have moved away from Everyday Math to Singapore Math and Mercer Middle School dropped CMP2 for Saxon Math.
So what happened when schools dropped the discovery math books approved by the District to far better texts like Singapore and Saxon? The performance of their students soared!
- Schmitz Park Elementary got permission to try Singapore Math textbooks in 2007. Its students’ math scores jumped : in 2010 the 5th graders had the third highest passing rate on the state math test, even though the school has no gifted magnet program
- Mercer Middle School's Seventh Grade math scores in 2011 on the MSP exam indicated that it had become the best for low income and second best for limited English.
The Seattle School District Administration
Possibly part of the problem at Seattle Public Schools is that the curriculum leader for mathematics, Janet Zombro, has no mathematics or technical background. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English, obtained from the University of Washington, and a Master's Degree of Teaching and Education, from City University. No math degree. No science degree. No experience working in industry where math is important. Somehow she was allowed to teach middle school and high school math and this gave her the "background" to take charge of Seattle's math curricula. Imagine a flight training school in which the head of curriculum had never flown.
A new superintendent started in Seattle last year: Jose Banda. He does not appear to be an ideologue like the previous occupant of the office, Susan Enfield, and there was relatively decent math in the district he left (Anaheim). But he has had enough time to get his district sea legs and it is time for him to act. This problem is now going to be his problem. The School Board probably has a four-person majority that would vote in favor of making the necessary changes.
Jose Banda, Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools
The Seattle School District has a policy to evaluate and re-adopt core instructional materials every 7 years. Middle school math textbooks (Connected Math Program – CMP2) were last adopted in 2006, and elementary school books (Everyday Math – EDM) was last adopted in 2007. Even on Seattle's own schedule it is time to secure new books, but some in the district want to hold off on a new middle school adoption. Their excuse? Lack of funds.
This is really a poor excuse. Money is already budgeted for the elementary school texts and middle school math books could be funded by changing priorities (like the millions put aside for TRAINING in the new Common Core standards). Besides many PTA's can help raise money for books and I suspect there are foundations that are ready to help. I will volunteer to help! The Gates Foundation spends tens of millions on education, including improving math literacy...let them help their own city.
In summary, Seattle has a math curriculum that:
1. Is missing key algorithms and material.
2. Is not approved by the State.
3. Has been panned by mathematicians.
4. Has have been proven to be ineffective (e.g., high remediation rates in colleges)
5. Has been shown inferior to superior curricula by objective testing in some Seattle Public Schools.
6. Is patronizing and destructive to underprivileged kids.
What should you do?
If you are a parent with a child in Seattle Public Schools, you have a big problem. And if you are a citizen in the city, third-class mathematics education for the city's children is bad for you in many ways: bad for the economy, bad for our future, a poor reflection of the shining, technologically city we are so proud of.
First, start complaining: tell your kids teachers, principal, and school administrators you want better math books. Now. Books that teach the requisite skills and which are approachable for parents and others. You want some suggestions? Saxon and Singapore Math are good, as is Math in Focus. And there are others.
When election time comes this fall, vote for Seattle School Board candidates that support good math. Sue Peters, is strong advocate of strong math textbooks for our city's kids. I know she would make an excellent school board member.
Join local advocacy groups, such as the Seattle Math Coalition.
Folks, the math debacle in Seattle Public Schools has gone on long enough. The future of too many Seattle kids has been undermined. Replacing the math curriculum is not the only measure that is needed, but it will be a giant step towards rectifying the problem.