By Ted Nutting, Ballard High School AP Calculus AB teacher

For years, Seattle schools have been failing our students in math.  Their scores on the state test are terrible; many of our high school graduates must take remedial math in college; the achievement gaps between students of different races and socioeconomic status continue to widen.  Our children face narrower career and life options.

Things aren’t improving.  The “reform math” textbooks and teaching methods we’ve used for over 15 years just don’t work.  We need what works – direct instruction by competent teachers using good textbooks.  This year we have a chance to elect school board members who will make that happen.

The board is split:  three (Michael DeBell, Betty Patu, and Kay Smith-Blum) have consistently supported good math; three (Steve Sundquist, Sherry Carr, and Peter Maier) have opposed it; and one – Harium Martin-Morris – has been ambivalent. To produce a pro-math majority, we need to replace at least one of those four, and they all are up for reelection this year.  The new board must hire a permanent superintendent committed to sound mathematics instruction and must, as soon as financially feasible, replace the reform textbooks currently used with ones that support direct instruction.

Parents can see what’s happening:  how often do math assignments come home with no clear directions, no explanations, no examples, and often no right answers?  That’s reform math.  How many children pull out calculators to do the simplest arithmetic?  Reform again.  How many get good grades in school but can’t seem to handle math they should know?  Once again, it’s reform.

In the face of this, school officials push to implement reform math even more fully.  They hire math “coaches” who indoctrinate teachers in reform math.  They contract with the University of Washington College of Education, long steeped in reform math, to provide “professional development” for math teachers.  And they recently hired a reform math firm to start up the new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program at Cleveland High.  The obvious evidence that reform math does not work leaves them unfazed.

Seattle officials claim that reform math promotes equity and reduces the achievement gap; it doesn’t.  They want teachers to use “differentiated instruction,” another reform staple, to handle problems created when they constantly put students who can’t do the work in classes alongside those who can.  That doesn’t work either.

Seattle has had some major successes.  Schmitz Park Elementary has no gifted magnet program, but it started using Singapore Math textbooks in 2007.  Its students’ math scores soared; last year the 5th graders had the third highest passing rate in the state on the state test.  North Beach Elementary began using Saxon Math in 2001.  Their scores rose dramatically and stayed high for years, until a new principal, who opposed Saxon, took over; then the scores plummeted.   Ballard High School students’ scores on the AP calculus test have for several years averaged far higher than those of any other school in the district. What these three programs have in common is that they don’t use reform math.

Singapore Math and Saxon Math are excellent, real-math programs; Schmitz Park and North Beach have special permission to use them.  At Ballard, teachers of the feeder pre-calculus course and the AP calculus course both primarily use direct instruction, de-emphasizing the use of calculators.  The AP class uses an older calculus book rather than the reform text.

How do Seattle administrators respond? Ignore the successes, or, if forced to acknowledge them, give no credit to the textbooks or teaching methods used. When asked recently about Schmitz Park and North Beach, Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield and Board president Sundquist credited those successes to excellent teachers, saying that a good teacher can have success with any text.  But those teachers will say the results depend on the textbooks and the teaching methods as well.

Seattle’s children deserve to succeed in math. Why are we so complacent with their failure?  Do we care enough about their math learning to elect school board members who have the courage to give our children the opportunity to learn real math?  Let’s hope so; it’s time to fix the math problem in Seattle’s schools.


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