October 20, 2009

Undermining Math Education in our State

As many of you know, improving math education is of particular interest to me--particularly since I see on a daily basis the poor math skills of many entering UW students. And I was stunned by the questionable materials provided to my own children. I am active in a group called wheresthemath.com, which includes thousands of parents and educators from throughout the state trying to do something about it.

Two years ago the State legislature got tired of the terrible math standards (or requirements) in our State and took authority away from Terry Bergeson, then Superintendent of Public Instruction. Ms. Bergeson was an advocate of discovery math (a.k.a. fuzzy or reform math), which is weak on fundamentals, but heavy on calculator use, group learning, and writing about math. Under her watch, discovery math came to dominate our K-12 schools, and student math skills declined.

Today somewhat improved math standards are in place (better, but far below what they should be) and the new Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn has instructed his staff to drop the math WASL and to develop new End of Course assessments. But the problem is that he did not replace Bergeson's old staff and they are committed to keeping the poor Discovery math in place. One of his senior math education staff testified FOR the poorly reviewed Discovering Algebra and Geometry series when considered by the Seattle Board of Education. With her encouragement, the Board voted to acquire these extraordinarily bad high school math books (rated "mathematically unsound" by mathematicians hired by the State Board of Education). But that is not the worst of it, OSPI staff are now editing the new state standards so that only portions they like will be tested.

Recently, Dorn's staff released the Test Development Guidelines that will guide the writing of new WA standardized tests. These are on the OSPI website in the What's New box at this link: http://www.k12.wa.us/assessment/WASL/Mathematics/default.aspx. In these guidelines, bold text is used to indicate what parts of each state math standard should be tested.

Even a cursory examination of these guidelines reveals that state standards are being compromised to further a Discovery math agenda. Fluency, competency, and standard algorithms are not deemed important enough for evaluation. To illustrate this problem, consider the following key grade 3 standard, with the bold text representing content to be assessed:

"3.1.C Fluently and accurately add and subtract whole numbers using the standard regrouping algorithms." (page12)

As you can see, neither fluency nor standard algorithms will be tested. The same undermining was applied to multiplication and division, with none of this standard bolded:
“4.1.A Quickly recall multiplication facts through 10 X 10 and the related division facts. “ (page26)

So none of our state students have to worry about knowing multiplication and division facts very well! So students won't have to know that 4x5=20, or 36/6=6!
According to discovery math supporters, that's for calculators to know, not kids.

And the same treatment is given to fractions and other key mathematical skills.

You can look through the rest yourself, but the bottom line is that the State math standards are being gutted by these folks. Fluency in basic operations will not be tested and they are trying to push the reform approach of heavy reliance on calculators and inefficient discovery-math algorithms (a good video on fuzzy math was made by fellow meteorologist M.J. McDermott, who is also a member of wheresthemath.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr1qee-bTZI).

Randy Dorn campaigned with a promise to clean up the math mess in our state, so each child could get a world class math education. It is time he replaced the Bergeson dead-enders who are undermining his intentions and maintaining the failed policies of the past. Editing standards is clearly subverting the expressed written intent of the Washington State legislature and the needs of our state.


  1. Are any of the current Seattle school board candidates aware of this problem? Do they have any commitment to fixing it? I haven't sent in my ballot yet.

  2. I had no idea Cliff. I fired off letters to both the Gov. and the State Board of Ed. We clearly need to chart a new direction and quick.

    I'm bummed that my 17 year old son will have the extra challenge of having to play catch-up in college/university.

    Hopefully a change can be made, and fast.

  3. Cliff,
    I'm not sure it's possible for me to agree with you more, so I'll just say "hear, hear!!"

    Our 9th grader has learning disabilities and just barely keeps up with her math course. There's no point pushing her; she's going to end up going to vocational school, not UW.

    Our 4th grader, OTOH, is very bright and we have to have her tutored a few months out of the year so that she learns all the math *I* think she should learn. I think the world of her highly-educated, very experienced teacher, but she'll be the first to tell you that the math curriculum is "disappointing" -- and she goes out of her way to enrich the materials and to push the kids as much as she can. It's just not enough.

    I'm glad you're so visibly pushing for improvements in math education.

  4. Math for my 9 year old and me is a major frustration.

    The switch to Everyday Math is still in transition; not taught in the Montessori classroom.
    I am asked to introduce my child to Everyday Math at night using the web/online manual as a tutorial reference.

    Helping my child to learn is a task I cherish, but in this case the logic is flawed, i.e. the online, Everyday Math pages do not correlate to the Everyday Math book (page numbers and their content are not the same and I have no context for teaching the curriculum. To patch the void, an answer sheet is sent home to support the Everyday Math homework assignments.

  5. "“Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges,” argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor. "

    This quote comes from an article in today's New York Times by Tom Friedman: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/21/opinion/21friedman.html?em

    I see my grandchildren being under-taught the basics in math and it is so sad. They are way behind in the basics compared to when I was in school.

  6. In a state that is home to Microsoft (math is fairly important to developers), Boeing (I imagine being numerate is a requirement for engineers) and Amazon (the largest store in the world probably needs to calculate profits) I find it frightening that my daughter is being subjected to such a dumbing down.

    Is this simply in the hope that if our kids fail math they won't notice the folks in Olympia busy pork barrelling their way through another term.

    Does anyone have any recommendations for fun online resources my daughter won't view as "extra" homework but would be happy to improve her skills on?

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  8. How the standards are being used, or not used, to develop test specs is subverting the expressed written intent of RCW. 28A.305.215. http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?Cite=28A.305.215
    Notes: Intent -- 2008 c 172: "The legislature intends that the revised mathematics standards by the office of the superintendent of public instruction will set higher expectations for Washington's students by fortifying content and increasing rigor; provide greater clarity, specificity, and measurability about what is expected of students in each grade; supply more explicit guidance to educators about what to teach and when; enhance the relevance of mathematics to students' lives; and ultimately result in more Washington students having the opportunity to be successful in mathematics. Additionally, the revised mathematics standards should restructure the standards to make clear the importance of all aspects of mathematics: Mathematics content including the standard algorithms, conceptual understanding of the content, and the application of mathematical processes within the content." [2008 c 172 § 1.]

  9. Lake Stevens School District has switched to Math Expressions. I think it's pretty good. It's very similar to Math-U-See which we used as homeschoolers for the past two years. I've heard lots of negative comments about Everyday Math from all over the country, so I'm not surprised.

  10. My very-bright 6th grader spent last Monday's math period at school reviewing the concept of "1/2".

    I was so horrified, I've signed up to go in and teach 90 minutes of real math, once a week to the 5 brightest kids in the class. Even if all I do is prevent their brains going to mush from reviewing stuff they've known for 3-4 years, I'll be doing them a favor.

    If anyone has any tips on teaching real math to very bright 6th graders who are headed to Algebra in 7th grade, let me know!

    We need to get more people who LOVE math into the classrooms to share their enthusiasm. Most elementary school teachers are not math/science enthusiasts, hence the embracing of fuzzy math that is more words/art than numbers.

  11. It isn't the curriculum. Even the best curriculum in the world can't teach itself. The curriculum is just a tool in the hands of a teacher. Current K-8 preparation programs require 2-3 mathematics content courses in undergraduate school and 1-2 mathematics pedagogy courses for certification for K-8.

    Developmentally, the range of mathematics taught from Kindergarten through 8th grade is huge, from introducing numbers and counting in kindergarten to algebra in middle school. To expect teachers to know how to teach all that with a minimun of 3 courses (2 math courses and one math teaching course) is an impossible task. Strengthen teacher preparation programs for mathematics and it won't matter what curriculum is adopted.

  12. My kids' dad and I are both very good at math... including advanced classes in high school. However, we are unable to help with our children's math homework, because we don't even understand the textbook. (they're in 8th and 11th grades). Along with the simplification of math curriculum, the science curriculum is dumbing down as well.

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  14. Cliff: I hope you are going to send in an editorial to the Seattle Times!

  15. Soccer Monday at 5
    Gymnastics Wed at 6am and 5
    Facebook at 9pm
    nature deficit disorder
    Fast Food
    Fast Media
    and the math teaching paradigm of "comfortable access" is just but a few of issues at hand

  16. I did some research in regards to our countries basic school systems. USA school system is based on the turn of the 1900 century when we had a huge influx of foreign immigrants. To this day this system is the basis for our childrens education. It has never been upgraded. It is also quite interesting that math has been especially hit quite hard .... math is a universal language. ie. all peoples can communicate. Next to be hit hard is history ............ mmmmmmm .... what do you think.

  17. Sorry, 1/7 and 1/11!

    Represent and identify equivalent fractions with denominators of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 12.

    Can anyone explain this???

  18. How about 2/2, 3/3, 4/4,...,n/n ?

    We both underestimate and cheat our children with the poor math curiculum, and teachers who don't understand math, so they can't teach it well. Years ago, my son had a high-school math teacher mark 7x=35 X=? wrong when he answered x=5. He pointed out the error; she showed him the answer book said x=6, and refused "to do the math."

  19. I am a math teacher in a Washington State middle school. I love math and I am pretty good at teaching it. But, I am no longer allowed to teach it the way I know is best. I have to use constructivism and "discovery learning" to the detriment of my students. I try my best to do what is right, but I am being watched. I want to quit. I want to be a mathematician in a place where they appreciate the math.
    Let me just leave you with some thoughts..
    Early math learning experiences are very very important. Elementary teachers should know math beyond what they are teaching so they understand how important it is for the later years. Good teaching trumps curriculum every time. Districts should not hire people who are math-phobic. In China, the best math teachers teach the lower grades to give the kids a good foundation. Why can't we do the same?
    I really appreciate all you do, Mr. Mass, in alerting people to this problem and this awful curriculum. Maybe things will change before I retire, but in the meantime, how many students will be lost to the stupidity of bad curricular materials and bad teachers?

  20. The problem is much deeper than teaching math.

    Boeing & Microsoft employ some of the brightest "math" minds around and yet, the former can't get a new plane to fly and the later has demonstrated, after several attempts, it can not improve a decade-old operating system.

    If math were valued in our society there would be demand for math majors from our universities.

  21. I understand that discovery math is different but it is how people will eventually start thinking as they develop.

    The whole concept is to teach how people will eventually be thinking. I learned math memorizing algorithms but as I developed my skills mentally, I was doing math in a similar fashion as the cluster concept.

    With how they teach now, they want students to learn how they will most likely be doing math when they develop. Breaking the big problem down into smaller problems. However, this is not efficient. This is where it comes down to, what is efficient and quick vs what is the better way of thinking.

    Discovery Math isn't a wrong way to teach. It's different and works the mind more to develop problem solving skills vs memorization. The problem is that there is not enough time for students to develop these skills properly before they move onto higher math.

    If you want to compare how well students are doing outside of the US, just look at how much more time they spend in school. I understand that students also have to take time outside of a classroom to develop their own skills but honestly,who really expects kids to spend enough time outside of the classroom. After homework assignments, how many kids will want to spend more time studying.

  22. and it's not just maths. we were told at a recent parent/teacher evening that although end of year tests would include some basic knowledge of the solar system this wasn't going to be covered in class ... talk about setting the kids up for failure

  23. Christopher,
    A problem with discovery math programs is that they are leaving out major parts of mathematics that are crucial for success later. In addition, students are failing to build key skills. The bottom line is that current discovery programs are clearly not working. And as my message explains, important math skills will not even be tested. The National Academy Sciences found that there is a lack of research showing that discovery methods even work.....cliff mass

    Regarding Seattle School Board candidates--Kay Smith Blum really seems to understand the situation.

  24. I hate to ask this, but why are methods of teaching math from forty years ago , discredited? Weren't we cranking out engineers and scientists then? Wasn't the level of math proficiency of incoming freshmen higher then as well? Seriously, using calculator for simple tasks?

    "Here kid, take this crutch for walking , because we're always going to have crutches"

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  26. Why did Randy Dorn leave Bergeson's staff intact in the first place? Surely he can't be that naive. It's not as if Dr. Bergeson wrote the standards and test items herself. Superintendent Dorn better start flexing his proverbial muscle, or he will fumble away his opportunity to improve our struggling public schools.

  27. Whenever this discussion of math teaching comes up (and we had it, but in different form, when my kids were in elementary school in the 80's, I'm reminded of the Isaac Asimov short story, 'The Feeling of Power'. In that future world, 2 societies are locked in a long, deadlocked conflict which is completely controlled by computers. Until an 'antiquarian' begins to demonstrate to his superiors an amazing skill he has learned -- he can compute without a calculator!!
    At first his superiors are unbelieving - how can those 'random' marks on a piece of paper actually produce the same answer as a calculator? But in the end, the society is freed from the yoke of the calculator:

    Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is sixty-three, and I don't need a computer to tell me so. The computer is in my own head.

    And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him."

  28. switching gears a little

    I know it's to early to tell what impact El NiƱo will have in the PNW but I wonder if it has the folks up in Vancouver a little worried about their big mountain events coming up..Just a thought

  29. Hmmmmm....interesting video and interesting ways, yet different ways to learn math. From what was shown, it almost seems like basic Multiplication and the standard long division may be easier as the other two says seem to perhaps involve more work. That`s just my take as that is the first video I have seen of those different ways of math learning. But guess one would have to come familiar with what ever worked best for them. But good to see that there are other ways of learning math.

  30. Math teaches you how to think. Specically, the critical thinking required throughout a student's own mathematical investigation strengthens problem solving abilities. Students who can produce original reasons and
    think through arguments on their own have a sense of ownership and understanding. Make no mistake, the true nature of mathematics is discovery.

  31. Cliff, you should check out the way that Montessori educators teach math...


  32. Very interesting, as my 2nd grader is using Everyday Math. I liked the idea of getting parents involved, and having the kids do a bit of work every day. I like the way they re-visit topics with the "spiral" curriculum. Thanks to this visit, I am starting to understand why they have such an emphasis on place values, a concept they seem to drum in to the point of frustration for my child.

    I feel that it is sometimes necessary to master an algorithm and let the feeling of understanding sink in later. It does come around, but the process is not very satisfying to students. I don't mind them introducing the groupings, or even the calculator use, but I agree that bright students should also know the old algorithms. It may be okay to teach it in the 4th grade instead of 2nd grade, perhaps.

    In our public school, they supplement the Everyday Math with Singapore math, so I am pleased to see the opinion that Singapore is a good method. I don't worry for my own daughter, with mathematician parents, but I do worry about the parents who aren't watching videos like this, or who can't see what the problem is doing through the wacky presentation. Also, my 2nd grader's teacher has a chemistry background, so I know they hire the best. It is hard to get a teaching job in Seattle.

    One other point, in favor of of the lattice method. IT is similar enough to the standard algorithm that students will easily learn the standard after the lattice method. The lattice method has the advantage of reaching visually oriented learners better than the regular long division. Long division is a baffling algorithm, for many years. The lattice method may make it more sensible for the early methematicians.

    Thanks so much, Cliff, for keeping your readers in the loop on this.

  33. My son is in six grade this year and it has been so depressing to watch his math studies. I've been tutoring him in the multiplication tables, etc trying to build up the fluency but he still does skip counting, which is the way he was taught in schools. Currently he's in the Spectrum advanced program at Denny, thankfully, but studying the math that I studied in 3rd grade in the 70's.

    Also, he hasn't had to know how to spell, or even how to punctuate a sentence until this year! The English and history programs are just as bad as the math. We need raise our expectations for our children. They will only live up to what we expect...

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  37. The whole point of using the lattice method is so that student's don't have to carry numbers. This undermines their understanding of place value, and the relationships between numbers, and will only serve to weaken their understanding of higher mathematics.

    Everyday mathematics is a thoroughly discredited system. If you have internet access, it’s not hard to find numerous articles about its failures.

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