May 06, 2009

Tragedy in Seattle

Tonight the Seattle School Board finally voted on the acquisition of high school math textbooks, and the results were both disappointing and tragic. In a four to three vote they agreed to adopt the Discovering Math series...extremely weak discovery/fuzzy math textbooks. Found to be "unsound" by a panel of mathematicians hired by the State Board of Education, the books are obviously deficient to anyone who knows about mathematics. What really is upsetting is that that the Seattle School District has now picked poor math curricula three times...since they selected very weak math books at the elementary (Everyday Math) and middle schools levels (CPM math). The trifecta of ineffective math books.
The bottom line of all this is that it will be virtually impossible for students in the State's largest school district to get a decent education in math. This has not been a successful district...with their students' math performance lagging seriously... and they have now sealed the academic fates of students over the next decade or so (the last time they acquired new high school math textbooks was over a decade ago).

Since math is so important for a student's success in college and in the jobs of the future, this is a terrible setback for thousands of children and their parents. Tutoring companies will enjoy a bonanza as will private schools. Who could voluntarily send their children to such a district, knowing that they will be unprepared for the high-tech world of the future?

It was gratifying that three of the board members saw the problem and voted against Discovering Math (Michael DeBell, Harium Martin-Morris, and Mary Bass). Michael DeBell was particularly impressive and thoughtful. The board members supporting Discovering math claimed they were powerless to oppose the curriculum since the proper process was followed. It was painful to watch an obviously failing school district and the inability of the majority of the board to see beyond process to the desperate needs of the district's students.. The only hope on the horizon is that many neighboring districts are not making the same mistake and eventually their success will be such an embarrassment to Seattle that it will have to dump--at great expense---these turkey textbooks. A real tragedy.

It is also time for the community to work to replace several of the hapless Board members, who admittedly ignored a huge number of calls and emails on this issue. Of particular note was Cheryl Chow, whose embarrassingly long, rambling speech was both inappropriate and off-topic at the same time. We need better people than this to run the school district of our state's largest city.


  1. I really feel your frustration. I am a product of Integrated Mathematics and it did nothing but hold me back when I got to UW. I managed to barely get through Math 126, but it killed me in Physics and shot down any chances I had at my desire to be a mechanical engineer. I came out with a BS in Econ and a minor in Euro Studies and I'm a consultant in the field of health care now, but it's a far cry from wanting to tinker with computers.

  2. I left the SPS system after my sophomore year in 2005. In high school I only took pre-calc and AP Calc AB, so I have no idea how the high schools have been doing algebra, but I felt quite well-prepared for math and physics at UW.

    What I'm curious about, though, is which textbooks you would have preferred.

    A brief look at the Key Curriculum Press books suggests they are very "soft" and heavy on concepts while light on "real math." On the other hand, in my experience kids who struggle with math most often have difficulty with concepts, not relative trivialities such as notation or the form of the question. A good mathematician sees the same problem no matter how it is stated, whether in free text or standard algebraic notation.

  3. I am amazed too that they chose these crappy textbooks... I looked at them, and they are not as good as the materials I use at Hopelink in my work as an adult literacy tutor, getting people ready to take the GED!

    It's sad that I, a high-school diploma holding volunteer, can teach adults math in a more rigorous way than the professional teachers in Seattle will be teaching their students.

    On the other hand, maybe the Seattle school system just guaranteed that our tutoring demand will remain high. ;-)

    What textbooks does Bellevue use at the high school level? We will have a ninth grader in the fall, so I guess I'll find out.

  4. "God made the idiot for practice, then He made the school board." -
    Samuel L. Clemens

    And math is only the beginning. You should read the "Social Studies" books.

    Or do like my wife did 35 years ago and carried her folding lawn chair into our son's classrooms and watched what was really going on in the Government Schools.

  5. Cliff Mass said "The bottom line of all this is that it will be virtually impossible for students in the State's largest school district to get a decent education in math"

    Cliff you don't give credit to the students who can think outside the box along with their parents and teachers to succeed at math. Textbooks, although are very important, are not the only way a student can infuse with math. Yes it is a very big mistake, I agree, but a tragedy. The tragedy is the fact that we have come to rest sole on corporate textbooks for the expansion of the mind..

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  7. Josh,
    I love students that think outside the box..we want that. But if essential topics are absent or poorly covered their mathematical foundation will fail. A few weeks ago I had a tearful student in my office..he wanted to be a meteorologist but couldn't do the math after a poor K-12 education. He had to give up a career he desperately wanted. That is a tragedy. And for many Seattle students, that will be their future. And the school board could have prevented this.

  8. What a huge disappointment. I've collected links to the blog posts you've made on this topic, and I'll pass the whole set along to the Capitol Hill Seattle blog (which I should have done earlier). The blog is part of an effort for community blogging and disseminating information. While the decision is tragic, hopefully the public will become educated enough to vote out this moronic board.

  9. "powerless to oppose the curriculum because the proper process was followed"? WHAT? So they feel they have to adopt any curriculum that has gone through the proper channels?

    Talk about abdicating their job responsibilities.

  10. Sorry but I don't have time to check out the following links right now but a few years ago(2001...) I subscribed to the free "TEACHER, Math and Science Journal Devoted to Rigorous and Imaginative Learning"
    published by The Northwest Eisenhower Regional Consortium for Mathematics and Science.

    These kinds of ideas were held by the teachers and other educrats who spent millions of dollars developing

  11. Cliff,
    Thank you for your testimony last night at the Board meeting and for your energetic advocacy for mathematical education in our city and state. I received hundreds of passionate e-mails on the HS math adoption in Seattle that deepened my opposition to inquiry based math texts and brought the family challenges of overcoming confusing text books to light. I know the vote last night is dissappointing but your work raising awareness of our need for better math instruction is not in vain. Persistant community pressure to hold Seattle Public Schools accountable for outcomes in math instruction can make a real difference. Thanks for caring about our kids.

  12. I heard from my dad that the Discovery books are mostly words and pictures that have not much to do with math. Why would anyone ever want that??? Isn't the district already damaged enough already? We need better book now quickly, or otherwise suddenly there would be a bunch of people that need to be educated to get jobs.

    Benjamin (Ivan's son)

  13. Our educational system remains entrenched in 19th & 20th Century ideas about the way the world works. I hate to criticize educators, they have a complex job; however, those in charge of the schools seem to be more interested in protecting an "antiquated process" rather than focus on results. In order to achieve 21st Century results with students, educators need to start listening to those outside their pedagogic island. It's disturbing to me that those in charge of education seem to know so very little about it. Dr. Mass, it's great that you raised your voice! Apparently, there were those who would not condescend to listen.

  14. To Josh-B's comment that parents will still teach their children math outside of school and students will still learn math outside of school. While this is true of those that have internal drive to learn and/or strong family support, it isn't true for those on the margin.

    A lot of students who could have succeeded or even excelled at math with a strong math program will lose interest or fail. I agree with Cliff that a strong foundation in math is critical to anything a person wants to do in the future.

  15. My 7yr old SPS student told me this morning after an hour of staring at his math homework "Guess what Dad I just figured out that they are just teaching me the same thing in a different way, I already know how to do this"... I don't think we should discount the program because it is different or because it uses a unique approach to teaching math, in fact parents and students are just as at fault as the schools are for not ensuring a quality level of education.

    That said, we are already paying for public education and as a result we should get what we pay for. The concepts are intentionally taught in a fuzzy way so that students don't have to realize they are learning math. The problem with this is connecting those concepts with real applications of math problems is difficult. There have been countless times where my older son (middle school APP student) has told me that he only understood how work a math problem via a textbook taught shortcut and he didn't understand what concept the shortcut was applying to.

    If we can't change the decisions here, what can we do to create a better supplemental education? Tutoring and Private schools are too expensive.

  16. I agree with most of the comment s above. I do..

    But I also know of people from the "fringe" who have become models to look after in the math and science world. It is the job of teachers to draw forth the energy for learning. If what you are saying is true, than you have no faith in the transfer of knowledge from a human leader.

    I never said "parents will still teach their children math outside of school" I was implying that parents and teachers could get together and find a way to make it work for the student to succeed. I understand this doesn't happen on many levels, but textbook problems is just part of the issue at hand.

    The text is bad,but a good instructor will recognize the inequalities and work around them. If you think they cant then we have a bigger problem here....

  17. Another Seattle-area meteorologist has been somewhat vocal about the Seattle area math curriculum as well, Q13's MJ MCDermott has a youtube video commentary about "Everyday Mathemathics". It was my first exposure to the problem, which is , tragically, already in use in the Northshore School district.

    My issue was how to help my kids with their homework when they were required to learn these alternate math solving methods, when I am only armed with what I learned in the seventies and eighties (if it ain't broke....) The NSD solution? Offering parents classes on these new methods so they can learn them as well. Talk about teaching old dogs new tricks.

    Here's a link to the youTube video:

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  19. I guess this is part of the reason that I'm not an engineer like I wanted to be. When I was in college, there was maybe 2 teachers that were excellent with Calculus - my failing point. I could never get in their classes. I took 124, 125, and 126 at least 4 times each and finally had to give up.
    I wanted to do something with aerospace, but math stopped me.
    I work as a computer tech which is another hobby of mine, but I still feel cut short somehow.
    Pretty much the same situation as "TrickyCoolJ" above.
    Yes, I DID want to become a meteorologist also, but the math...

  20. I think you should send your 5/6 blog to the editorial pages of the Seattle Times.....

  21. "But if essential topics are absent or poorly covered their mathematical foundation will fail. A few weeks ago I had a tearful student in my office..he wanted to be a meteorologist but couldn't do the math after a poor K-12 education. "

    You're right about the bad K-12 education, but you shouldn't allow your students to use that as an excuse. I was a poor kid in the 80s and was a victim of "the soft bigotry of low expectations" from teachers and counselors. My high school math education consisted of "life skills classes," business accounting etc...I was apparently meant for the illustrious secretarial profession?

    I went back about 10 years ago, taught myself algebra, took a correspondence course in pre-Calculus and took 3 quarters of Calculus at community college -- from a tremendously good moonlighting high school math teacher named Marv Cook. I aced all 3 quarters.

    K-12 education has been lousy for as long as I can remember. The reality is many students need to take their own initiative and compensate for that. Crying because your dreams are vanquished because of K-12 math education? Well, I'd say such kids need to channel the crying energy into doing something about it, or their dreams are just passing fancies. You can teach yourself. I know I did. Community college provides math education from basic math through 200 level calculus. Tell them to go with that...of course your tuition increases that you've pushed so hard for diminish the financial access to community college. We all contribute to the problem, don't we...

    And BTW, I've had some horrendously bad education experiences at UW as well.

  22. I wish there was more we can do to fight this Cliff. You are right that this is such a tragedy to Seattle students. I'm so disappointed and would like to continue fighting.

  23. Thanks so much Liembo for posting that video. I was actually just banging my head with frustration helping my 4th grader with her math homework (her book is Everyday Math) so it was timely!

  24. "Of particular note was Cheryl Chow, whose embarrassingly long, rambling speech was both inappropriate and off-topic at the same time."

    Thank you for pointing this out. I felt like she was scolding the parents.

  25. I went through this crap in the late 60's when I got my first nursing degree. They had us take a course in anatomy from a "programmed" textbook intended for recreation majors. And so I was befuddled until I went back to get my Bachelor's degree and took a real anatomy and physiology course. To me this "concept math" is for people who are already competent. I sometimes solve problems this way, it often faster for me. But I can do the math algorithms without a calculator, because they were very expensive when I went to school. Hey folks, I have, and can still use, a slide rule.
    Let's not dumb down curriculums for the majority. But I also agree you can learn the math if you need to. One reason I went back to get my Bachelor's degree was I knew I was badly educated.
    I don't have any kids. Maybe I should run for school board since I can see a broad overview.

  26. Alas - 'tis what one gets when one lets the 'rats run the rat maze... and just watch as the sheeple re-elect them time and time again.

    Oh, well. At least McDonalds appreciates the endless supply of cheap labor produced by SPS.

  27. I've seen fuzzy math creep onto the pages of my daughter's homework. It can be frustrating not to be able to help my third grader with these worksheets because I don't understand the fuzzy techniques. I told her once that a problem could be done with algebra ("but that is not the way we are supposed to do it Dad"). A couple of days ago we were playing with fractions by multiplying and dividing by 1. That was okay and I think I made some headway-- three thirds and ten tenths is a whole, but we were not able to fill out the whole worksheet--some of it was nonsensical to me!

    It wouldn't hurt to have a parent math night. I'd challenge the Edmonds School District to defend some of these problems. For the moment I am not angry enough--partly because I wonder if they haven't found clever ways of making the kids think about math? Maybe there is something to the fuzziness at times? But I sure wonder about this--and Cliff's comments have me doubly concerned now.

  28. Mike of MLT said:

    "For the moment I am not angry enough--partly because I wonder if they haven't found clever ways of making the kids think about math?"

    I can feel his pain, because that is exactly where I was in 1993. Busy with my job, with one kid in a brand spanking new public elementary school in California. They were not teaching times tables, division, fractions, and other basic math skills. By the time he got to 6th grade, it became painfully obvious that he needed help, and we moved him to a private school.

    Later on, when we moved to the Northwest, we noticed that the schools in our district have pretty much taken out most of the content out of teaching - grammar, spelling, penmanship, from English, geography and historical facts social studies, calculations in science, and finally, math facts from math, especially in K-8 grades. When these students move on to high school, they are ill equipped to take rigorous high school classes to help them in college. Little wonder Microsoft, Boeing, and other high tech companies have to import worker from other states and countries.

  29. Cliff,

    I am so grateful you brought this issue to our attention. Without your blog I would not have known this tragedy was occurring.

    Since the passing of the curriculum (which I wrote repeatedly to school board members about, urging them to reject) I have begun the search for a math tutor. My son is completely bored by the middle school curriculum and will begin the 9th grade math program next year. His desire is to pursue a career in the sciences. I owe it to him to provide a decent education in math, and am frustrated that I must go outside of the schools to do so.

    We can continue to lobby for change, and perhaps our voices over time will cause a shift to happen.

    Thanks again Cliff. I wouldn't be able to support my child's dreams without the notice you supplied. I am very grateful to you.

  30. Frustration, yes. Tragedy, no. Tragedy is when scores of people in Seattle traffic yell at a depressed woman to jump from a bridge. Democracy means your voice gets heard, not that you get your way every time. That is the frustration. Go back and build a coalition of citizens ahead of time or vote the school board out.

  31. Ask any adult aged 50+ how they feel about math, and many will tell you they are no good at it. We were taught the "good old fashioned way" that most of you pine for. Facts can be memorized to pass a test, but memorization is different than learning. As with most learning, a child learns best when new knowledge is applied to previous knowledge, and taught in context. That doesn't mean that important facts are not taught, but taught in isolation--memorization--will not lead to lasting learning.
    The hard part about teaching math is that not all kids learn the same way. I assume from the comments here that math came naturally to most of you. Some have made a career of it. For those people who struggle with it, it is a long search to find meaning and understanding in concepts that could just as well be written in Chinese for all the sense it makes to them.

    As someone else stated here, it isnt about the book. It is about the teacher in front of the class, and about the support and encouragement and accountability for doing one's best that is what makes a student into an adult who successfully uses math in his or her life.

  32. I agree that this is upsetting but it is far from being a tragedy. As someone mentioned earlier, school boards are political animals. If one can't get their people on the board they need to be good enough at politicking to convince the current board members. (which would make you think that both math and politics need to be better addressed in our school systems).

    Cities like Detroit where, apparently, the graduation rate for high school is <50%, come close to being tragedies. It is sad that middle class UW students may not be able to overcome the shortcomings of their primary education. It is far sadder that lower class youth in Detroit are part of the workforce before they have a high school education.

  33. this is so sad. Having watched education standards decline in the UK (where I was born), Australia (where my daughter was born) I had high hopes when we moved here a couple of years ago.

    Looking at the way Math is being taught we're starting to wonder if home schooling would be a viable alternative to the systemic dumbing down

    the comment that got me searching for some sanity!



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