June 20, 2012

Now is the Time to Fix the Math Meltdown in Seattle Public Schools

Check out my new blog on math curriculum here.

A few days ago the Seattle Times ran another story on the math problems in Seattle, noting that about 70% of the students entered Seattle community colleges require math remediation.
Now these are college-bound students that are unprepared...what about those that don't go to college or who drop out?  I bet their math skills are no better. Or a lot worse.

So we have a real disaster on our hands here in Seattle, and both students and parents in the district should be concerned.  I mean very concerned.

Now the article goes on to talk about a grant from the Gates foundation in which Seattle students were able to to rapidly advance to readiness for college-level classes after they were given an intense course in the basics they never learned or forgot.  

Yep...they needed to be taught how to do very basic stuff:  fractions, percentages, orders of operations.  Key skills they never learned in elementary and middle school.  I even see these gaps in students entering the UW (I have given a math pretest in Atmospheric Sciences 101).  We are not even talking about algebra, which requires knowledge of these basic operations.

Folks, this situation is disgraceful and needs to be fixed immediately...and we have a good idea of why it is happening and how to improve the situation immensely.
As I have noted in earlier blogs, the Seattle Public Schools has maintained the trifecta of terrible math curricula that use the discovery approach to instruction, while minimizing basic skills.

We are talking about  Everyday Math in elementary, Connected Math for middle schools, Discovering Math in the high schools.  These books do not encourage mastery of the key mathematical skills.  They push group work, essays about math, heavy calculator use, and spend inordinate time on extraneous topics (such as fractals and projections).

We KNOW this curriculum is a big part of the problem for a number of reasons.  For example, they don't contain a lot of crucial material...you can't learn what you aren't taught.  And when a limited number of Seattle schools were able to use good math books (Singapore or Saxon) their math scores soared.   You may have heard about Mercer Middle School--where rising math scores occurred quickly when they dropped the poor discovery texts (see story in the Seattle Times).   I can give you several other examples of this effect, such as North Beach elementary when the switched to Saxon.

Mercer Middle School students did far better after discovery math was replaced
 So there can be a rapid and significant improvement in math performance in Seattle Public Schools by switching math curriculum.  Some of the students have been so crippled by the poor curriculum of the past that they will need help to catch up...but we need to start...now.

The time for excuses are over and changes in the district make a new beginning possible.

First, Superintendent susan Enfield is leaving...a huge relief.  As Chief Academic Officer and as acting Superintendent she supported and defended discovery math curricula and worked against letting individual schools test other approaches.   I really worry what is going to happen in Highline.

Next, our new Superintendent, Jose Banda, supported good math curricula in the Anaheim public schools, and seems like an individual that listens and makes rational decisions.
Jose Banda, the new Seattle Super
Third, after last November's election there is probably a majority of the Seattle school board that would support fixing the math debacle.

Fourth, there is now huge body of evidence that the current math curricula is a disaster and that bringing in better books (e.g, Singapore, Saxon) would have huge benefits.

Fifth, the district's overall curriculum director and math/science lead have resigned. They have not been helpful--I met with them and came away disappointed.

And there are more reasons for optimism:  new approaches to computer learning promise powerful tools for giving students intensive practice in basic math skills.

 Now there are going to some of the old guard that want to maintain the status quo:

(1) The discovery math fanatics who still support it, even after its universal failures, because they believe it is better for the underprivileged (the opposite is true by the way) and for other equally irrational reasons.  Schools of education are full of these confused folks, especially the UW College of Education.

(2)  The "corporate" education folks (Seattle Times--particularly Editorial writer Lynn Varner, League of Education Voters, Alliance for Education, Gates Foundation, Cross Cut, etc) who believe that charter schools are the answer, or in breaking the "power" of teacher's unions, or in using Teach for America minimally trained (few weeks) student teachers.  In fact, most of this group is on the dole of the Gates Foundation, which has played a very unhealthy and undemocratic role in all of this.  Ignore them..they have no idea what they are talking about and often have other agendas. The tragedy is that many of these groups mean well, but are doing substantial harm to the kids they mean to help.

And some of the status quo types will say there is no money for books.  Nonsense.  Many parents will be pleased to buy a book for their kids to salvage their education.  The district has some money put aside for new books.  Many of us are willing to help finance the change.   And ask the deep-pocketed Gates Foundation, an organization that just spent 3 million dollars on remediation according to the article cited above.  Better new books than paying for endless remediation to fix the damage the old books caused.

Don't get me wrong, although we can make major progress with a curriculum change there will still be issues.  Undertrained teachers (also fixable), the effects of poverty and family dysfunction (much harder), and district bureaucratic intransigence and red tape.

Bottom line:  The poor math education we have given Seattle School District students is disgraceful.  By leaving it in place we have prevented many district students from pursuing technical or vocational careers (yes, carpenters need to know fractions).  We can make huge improvements with the simple act of changing the curriculum.  New district leadership can allow a new direction.

 Isn't it FINALLY time to fix this?  If you are a parent of a Seattle district student, you should talk to your principal and school board member.  Bring it up at PTA meetings.  If they tell you that they know better, keep pushing. They don't.


  1. Cliff, I'm with you on this issue, and I simply can't understand why anyone would push this discredited math system so hard and so far.

    I use mathematics a great deal, but what's worse is that the thinking that goes along with logic, set theory, and such are the basic tools of civilization, and now we're not teaching them.

  2. I strongly agree with your thoughts on this issue. thanks for the summary- peace.

  3. Although I don't live in Seattle, I see the effects of lousy math instruction where I teach, as well. I have AP Environmental Science students who can't handle fractions or powers of ten, and who reach for a calculator and start jabbing in numbers without understanding what they are doing. I applaud your efforts on this, Cliff.

  4. Does anyone know if the Math program used in the Edmonds School District is a Discovery program?

  5. Take away the calculators in middle school. This isn't just a local issue, its a national one. Just go ahead and wander over to your local booming Sylvan Learning Center.

    I hope the reforms you are pushing for can be achieved.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly that math curricula are in a terrible state. However, you are mistaken about Teach for America. The teachers in this program are trained. Also, they are required to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Some may be graduate students, but there are no undergraduate students. Lastly, Teach for America employees are stationed where there is a severe lack of qualified teachers to begin with, so their presence can only be of help in most cases.
    In response to CODETALKER: Edmonds School District adopted a non-discovery math curriculum four years ago. Prior to that, it was discovery-style. High school students are no longer placed in "Integrated Math" levels, and elementary students now use Math Expressions, a program that still uses some word problems but covers the basics and offers real explanations. The high school text books are McDougal Littell for algebra, geometry, and algebra 2, and Pearson-Prentice Hall for precalculus and calculus. These books are a huge departure from "reform math."

  7. Cliff,

    I went to elementary-middle school in Japan, where basic math skills were prioritized, and I was a slightly above average student. When I came to US in high school I became a straight A math student, even though I couldn't even understand English at the time! It was ridiculous.

    Its ridiculous how people are trying to make math "fun". For the vast majority, math cannot and will not be "fun". Math is a lot of hard work, repetitive hard thinking work, that you cannot take a break from because even a year break from it makes you forget much of those skills.
    The only "fun" I got out of it is when after hard work something clicked, I understood something I didn't before, and then it went back to being just dull hard work. And that's how its supposed to be.


  8. Oh, and another thing. I just finished reading Seattle Times article about Mercer School, and all "new" things they implemented sound very similar to what we had in schools in Japan, down to home visits by teachers. I guess that's what works.

  9. Ophelie,
    The teach for america folks only get a few weeks of "training" before they are thrown into the classroom (this is easy to confirm). There is NO indication that there is a lack of qualified teachers for the positions the TFA applicants are taking...in fact, here in Seattle each open position is getting dozens of applications from experienced, qualified teachers with real teaching degrees.

    TFA is really a being sold as a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Most TFA folks do not stay in teaching. I would be VERY worried if my child had a TFA novice leading their class....cliff

  10. I agree that Discovery Math has been completely discredited. The best that can be said is that for the brightest kids it's not any worse.

    The books are part of the problem.

    Another problem in Seattle and many other districts is social promotion. You can't teach algebra to kids who haven't mastered arithmetic yet. You can't teach analytic geometry to kids who haven't mastered algebra yet. Failing kids is taken as an admission of failure for the teacher. The schools desperately need some way for kids who are behind to learn at their level, instead of being dumped lost into material they aren't ready for.

    As has been mentioned, in middle school the kids get calculators and never do arithmetic by hand again. That's terrible. I have no problem with students doing some problems by calculator and it can be an advantage to get some practice in using them effectively. It could mean getting to see some real-world problems in which all the answers don't come out nicely to integers between 0 and 50. But they must continue to do problems by hand as well. Doing problems by hand gives them practice in estimating and spotting wrong answers.

  11. As a K-8 teacher w/experience from the other coast, I respectfully disagree that Everyday Math, etc. is the reason for this failure. I used Everyday Math w/students grades 1 through 6 at my little school and saw the progression unfold the way it is meant to. Algebra is indirectly taught as early as Grade 2. Fractions, powers of ten, basic algebra, etc. are taught by grade 6. Because I had a small classroom of generally 8 or 9 students spanning 6 or so grade levels, work was totally individualized. Kids who picked up concepts quickly could move ahead quickly as I would have them skip doing, say 4 of the same type of problem I knew they had previously mastered, and had them just do 1 or 2 to keep things fresh. I also skipped entire pages of what would just be review for these kids to keep them challenged. For the kids who needed more time to understand things, I had them do most every problem in the workbooks.

    Kids who are turned off w/school are unlikely to do well in math, especially if it's not made relevant. And it's hard to make algebra and higher branches of math relevant. Some kids won't mind that it's not relevant, but many will.

    Kids who learn via rote methods may master the steps to long division, for instance. But they won't learn how to apply it in a real world problem where division is just one step. Kids need to learn how to think mathematically and that's what Everyday Math, taught well, can do. Rote methods are often why kids get turned off to school. We don't share the same cultural values many Asian countries have, either, and kids won't work tirelessly on boring problems because that's what society/their parents/whatever want them to do.

    Khan Academy is a useful tool for many kids, but certainly not the answer. There's the slight issue, too, of cognitive issues caused by TV screens, computer monitors, etc. on younger brains.

    My kids will both do well at math (my 6 y.o. is already "above grade level") because I don't and won't limit talking math, doing math and playing math to school. We'll do it when something comes up in our day to day life, just as we always have. It's this way for everything.

    Everyday Math taught well, Khan Academy sprinkled in, and engaged parenting will work well.

  12. Let's not forget part of the problem- those who teach elementary because they don't really like math.

    Middle schools inherit kids who have no idea what place value is or how to use it when doing basic calculations. (I know, I've taught middle school for 25 years.)

    A good teacher can use anything to teach- even a lousy text like CMP. A good text can only go so far in helping a bad teacher.

    The only hope is that Seattle will choose a text that forces teachers to be trained the right way. Something like Singapore will give the teachers the needed knowledge and insights into the skills and concepts and beauty of mathematics.

    Just my two cents.

  13. Cliff,

    Thanks for taking an interest in the education of the next American generation.

    But, data shows that your generation had less educational achievement than the kids in school today.

    According to Diane Ravitch of NYU:

    1. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has been given since the 1960's and is the only valid measure of American education. Test scores have never been higher in math and reading (among whites, blacks & hispanics).

    2. High School graduation rates are at their highest levels ever.

    3. American public schools in low poverty areas, using international assessments, perform better than schools in Finland, Japan, Korea & Singapore.

    4. No other advanced country in the world, even those with the best educational systems, has privatized their public schools (take note Bill & Melinda).

    All this is achieved while 20% of US children are living in poverty (and this number is rising). This is the highest rate of child poverty among advanced nations.

    Cliff, if the current generation is so good at math why can't they calculate that US wages have fallen by 7% since 1970 while productivity has doubled (meaning wages should have also doubled)?

    One would think that this generation of economists would be well versed at math, yet, the entire economics profession missed a decade-long housing bubble that resulted in the largest financial collapse of their careers - duh!

    The current generation teaching in America's business schools all were unable to run a simple cash flow to determine that Enron's business plan was a fiction.

    Your generation has the lowest voter turnout among the world's 40 leading democracies. Among todays industrialized nations, your generation has the highest rate of: divorce, adult obesity (which kids are emulating), maternal mortality, infant mortality, child poverty and prison incapacitation. America has a high rate of murders and armed robbery. Home ownership is average, while, wealth and inequality in America are extreme compared to other advanced nations. Life expectancy in America is only 15th in the world. (see Jerry Mander)

  14. E,
    Those of us at the college level have seen a progressive decline in math skills over the past decades, so the results you cite can not be correct. Furthermore, there are all types of problems with NAEP that I will not review here...including the fact that many districts game it by deciding who to give it to and who to give extra time to....cliff

  15. Jon,
    You had a classroom of 8 or 9 kids and was able to adapt and supplement everyday math...no wonder they are doing ok. Yours is not the normal situation. In any reasonable test, Everyday Math has failed and cursory look at it shows how much it is missing...cliff

  16. Cliff - I am very excited about the Canadian non-profit JUMP math which so far, has an excellent curriculum through 8th grade. I've been using the program as a private tutor, and am very impressed. Researched by Harvard, teaches in a logical, in depth, sequential manner that really builds a deep understanding of concepts. http://jumpmath1.org

  17. E

    Did it ever occur to you that high school are flunking fewer kids, not because they are doing better, but because standards are dropping?

    I guess you're not familiar with grade inflation, a problem at various levels of education.

  18. Cliff: Can you give more info on Gates's influence in math education K-12? I would like to follow it up. Thanks, Don

  19. ClassroomWindow (with which I am affiliated) is conducting a national survey on math text effectiveness. Preliminary data on effectiveness ratings from K-8 teachers have Everyday Math rated the lowest overall and one of the two lowest for ELL and Free/Reduced Lunch students.

    Happy to share the results when they are finalized -- let me know if you are interested.


  20. Suggesting they have never been taught is off the mark. How about the notion that they were never learned. There is a key difference. Teachers in Seattle and across the country bust their a$$es to teach this material, districts spend millions on new curricula, there are untold number of hours of homework assigned, but in the end the students have to actually do the work.

    Math requires an ability to sit and think for a while and to work out the problems. People in the US, and this includes their overworked parents and the students themselves, have an attention span of about 1 minute -- hardly enough time to figure out these problems.

    Keep in mind too that people of your generation also don't know enough math to even help their own kids!

    I don't recall in the history books a lot of "math-ins" during the 1960's and 70's.

  21. Math education definitely need reform. Thanks for keeping the spotlight on this important issue. But can you comment on the huge storm in Duluth? http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/234958/ they are saying things like "this may never happen again".

  22. More support for your argument: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/video/math-creating-a-division.html

  23. I wonder how man parents study up alongside their children so they can be helpful to them?

    The is no excuse for a parent to say they don't understand the material. Get out the textbooks and relearn the material before your kids need help. Or take some adult math education to get back up to speed before hand. Talk to teachers and understand what you have to master so you can help teach yor kids.

    I lived in Singapore for a number of years and managed a large group of engineers. Every one of them saved up their vacation time so they could stay home and study with their kids prior to end of year exam time. It was very hard to keep my facility staffed during the weeks before exams.

    I've never heard of parents making that comitment in the US, although I'm sure it does happen. But my impression was that the Singapore kids excelled at math and science because of a huge commitment by their parents to their children's education. They didn't just leave it to the schools. In fact, educating their children was more important than their own recreation...by far.

    So I suspect the differences in performance berween countries have a lot more to do with culture than text books.

    John Marshall

  24. What do NAEP scores mean? Diane Ravitch, May 14, 2012


  25. Montessori Educations for everyone... Start young too!

  26. The is no excuse for a parent to say they don't understand the material. Get out the textbooks and relearn the material before your kids need help. Or take some adult math education to get back up to speed before hand. Talk to teachers and understand what you have to master so you can help teach yor kids.

    With the Everyday Math books, having the books at home will not be a help, even to the parents. The books do not include enough information to learn how to solve the problems without the teacher. They call it Discovery Math because the students are supposed to "discover" a method for working the problems on their own, as if every child were a young Descartes or Newton. Everyday Math has these "family link" letters for the teacher to send home as they start every chapter; they do not include how to do the problems, but they include all the answers to the homework. So you find out if you're doing it wrong, but you won't find out how to do it right. You can see that making the methods a guessing game hurts students from disadvantaged backgrounds the most, whose parents never learned much math, and English as a Second Language students who may not understand the teacher's spoken explanation in class and rely on a friend or family member reading the textbook to help them figure out what's going on.

    Students from involved, upper-middle-class parents are able to compensate for Discovery Math. They can explain at home whatever the student missed in class. They can tutor their child themselves or get outside tutoring; they can get a different set of books to study at home. Whatever it takes. It's the students from families who can't do that who really suffer.

  27. I couldn't agreewith you more, Cliff. My wife teaches in amiddle school with a high proportion of ree/Reduced Lunch students. She uses her old notes and Saxon derived materials as much as possible, though her official curriculum is Discovery Math, and their test scores have increased.
    I think another factor is, unfortunately, cultural: popular culture does not value math, and many families expect that all their child's education will occur in the classroom alone. It just ain't so.

  28. My son attends a private school where there is an even more extreme version of the spiralling, language based math curriculum than the one the Seattle schools uses. The attitude there is conceptual understanding is more important than arithmetic, and they will spend an entire week solving just one problem. Needless to say, we have to supplement outside of school (as do many other students we know) so he can learn to actually calculate. The "success" of these programs has to do more with outside tutoring than what is going on in the classroom. Many educators are not from math or science backrounds and therefore do not appreciate the importance of calculation skills in everyday life. The engineers and scientists I know think this kind of approach to teaching math is extremely ineffective.

  29. an interesting article posted today on Slate


  30. Thanks for the article:)

    Bello Jones


  31. do you know where you can get non-discovery math instruction for a kid in Seattle? for elementary, middle, and high school levels?

  32. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute did a nice job of breaking down NAEP and why it points to a failure of reform math. http://www.brookings.edu/research/speeches/2003/02/06education-loveless

    Would love to hear Cliff's view on the NAEP all up but even if it is valid, the data does not support a reform math agenda.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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