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Originally published Sunday, August 16, 2009 at 12:05 AM

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Which math book to use? A passionate debate rages

A wave of change in math teaching is about to hit Washington. It's bringing furious arguments over how to get all kids to meet new math standards — and which textbook series does the best job.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

In the spring, the Issaquah School District set out to pick the best math curriculum to help its high-school students prepare for the state's rigorous new math standards.

The district's math pros spent four months poring over textbooks, studying independent analyses and comparing all of this with what Issaquah students have learned so far. In the end, they made a unanimous choice: the "Discovering" math series for algebra and geometry.

But what happened next left Issaquah and other school districts in a quandary about how best to teach math, and who should make that call.

Randy Dorn, Washington's new schools chief, sent a memo in May to districts statewide saying there really is only one recommended text for high-school algebra and geometry — a math series published by Holt Mathematics.

But even Dorn is sending mixed signals on the importance of the right textbook. At a Friday news conference on the release of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores, he said: "Whatever [math] curriculum you have, if everybody believes in it, that's the one that works."

The push to meet new state standards has reignited an age-old debate about how to teach math, and Dorn's May memo created a "state-level quagmire" that has virtually paralyzed the ability of districts to choose math books, Issaquah Superintendent Steve Rasmussen wrote in a strongly worded message to his district's School Board.

The controversy already has triggered a lawsuit against Seattle Public Schools, which decided in May to use "Discovering" for algebra and geometry. (It's also the series the Highline district has chosen, and it's already in use by Lake Washington and Everett.)

Behind the conflict are some sobering statistics: This year, less than half of all 10th-graders passed the math WASL.

And the state has raised the bar: Beginning with the class of 2013, all students must pass end-of-course math assessments to graduate, and must also earn three high-school math credits, including an Algebra 2 credit — up from the current minimum credit requirement of two. That change sent districts scrambling to see how well their curricula covered the standards, and many realized they needed new textbooks — a decision that can influence the way math is taught for a decade, because textbooks and curriculum materials are big-ticket items.

For students, too, the stakes are high. Some of the highest-paying and most competitive careers are in science, technology and medicine — all math-intensive fields. Meanwhile, more colleges and universities are requiring applicants to take up to four years of math in high school.

"All of our kids want to go, and we want them to go, to college," Rasmussen said, "and math is the gatekeeping course."

How different are they?

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While the Holt series is considered a more traditional approach to math, those who know both curricula say the "Discovering" texts have plenty of traditional elements, too.

Here's how the two series differ:

• "Discovering" tries to tie the abstract to the concrete, with math "investigations" meant to help students discover underlying math principles. The publisher says students retain information better when they go beyond rote drills and learn how concepts apply to the everyday world. But detractors call it a weak and fuzzy approach, and dislike its frequent call for the use of calculators.

• Holt Mathematics takes a more traditional approach, including more extensive explanations and practice of mathematical concepts. But detractors say books that emphasize drills are tedious for some students.

Some of the confusion over which book is best stems from several conflicting reports from the state Board of Education, which commissioned studies of some of the texts available.

In one study, experts wrote that the "Discovering" algebra series "helps students see the mathematical big picture" and offered a good balance between teaching general and specific concepts and skills.

Yet in another later report, "Discovering" was labeled "mathematically unsound."

"The frustrating part to all of us was the (board's) report was not thorough enough," said Alan Burke, a deputy state schools superintendent under Dorn. "It really is difficult to make heads or tails out of this."

Better books or better teachers?

Many educators say the most important component of teaching math is not a book at all: The key is having well-trained teachers, and a belief that all students can learn higher-level math.

Virginia Stimpson, a professor in the UW's College of Education, believes a major problem is that some districts put middle-school students who do poorly at math into slower-moving classes. By the time they reach high school, they are far behind their peers. When they take the WASL or any standardized math test, they fail because they don't know how to do many of the math problems on the exam.

UW atmospheric-sciences professor Cliff Mass, an outspoken critic of the "Discovering" series, believes the importance of the textbook can't be discounted. It shores up a weak teacher's instruction, he says, and assists parents helping their kids with homework because they can find explanations in the book for how the math should be done.

Mass, along with Da-Zanne Porter, the parent of a Seattle student, and Martha McClaren, the grandparent of a Seattle student, sued the Seattle district over its choice of the "Discovering" series, saying it will exacerbate the racial achievement gap. The case is expected to go to trial in King County Superior Court in the fall.

Mass is also on the executive committee of WheresTheMath?, a group of parents, teachers and community leaders who are pushing for a more traditional approach to math. Many of its members "got involved in this when we saw our children fail in math, either in terms of grades or not learning essential material," Mass said.

Rasmussen, of Issaquah, believes many of those calling for a more traditional text are "math people" — engineers, mathematicians and scientists who enjoy practicing their math skills with drills.

"We're not trying to hit the 25 percent (of students) who already get math; we're trying to help the masses," Rasmussen said.

Is it hard to use or not?

This summer, Ted Nutting, a Ballard High School math teacher and member of WheresTheMath?, is working through the "Discovering Algebra" book, trying to figure out how he's going to teach with it.

He says it relies too heavily on the use of calculators, is boring for kids who could be very good at math, and focuses too heavily on time-consuming conceptual exercises. "I'm not opposed to them in principal; I'm opposed to a steady diet of them," he said.

In Lake Washington, teachers had little trouble adopting an earlier edition of "Discovering," said Dan Phelan, the district's chief academic officer. And test scores there rose modestly in the five years after the series was purchased.

"Honestly, I'm confused," Phelan said. "It's a pretty traditional math approach. I don't think our teachers found it difficult."

Phelan said "Discovering" is more attractive to math teachers because it doesn't dictate one way of doing math, and it helps reach more students because it brings both computation and context to math problems.

He says he thinks some people are taking a debate about how well specific concepts are covered by textbooks and confusing that with how kids learn math.

Educators say the battle is reminiscent of the debate a decade ago when experts clashed over the best way to teach reading. On one side, the "whole language" approach emphasized the use of good literature to captivate kids and draw them into reading. On the other side, the phonics approach emphasized teaching how to sound out words.

Eventually, educators came to an understanding that kids need both. And it could be that the math wars will be settled in much the same way.

"We're in an awkward spot right now," acknowledged Edie Harding, executive director of the state Board of Education. Harding said book publishers haven't had a chance to catch up to new math standards. In a few years, more choices will be available.

Many districts say they can't wait. They need new books now.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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