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Originally published October 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 6, 2006 at 7:27 AM

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Educators take different routes to get back to the basics in math

Carol Atkinson holds a stopwatch as the second-graders in her room fish pencils from their desks, a worksheet of 25 addition problems in...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Carol Atkinson holds a stopwatch as the second-graders in her room fish pencils from their desks, a worksheet of 25 addition problems in front of them.

"Ready, set, start," Atkinson says, and they're off. For the next three minutes, students work steadily and silently while Atkinson watches the time.

Later, the North Beach Elementary room buzzes with conversation as students work with small, brightly colored blocks for a math lesson on area. But the timed exercise, which they do every morning, is the kind of practice that some argue is too rare in Washington classrooms.

One of their solutions to the state's math problems: Bring back more drills.

"I know people hate the 'drill and kill,' but I call it skill-building," said M.J. McDermott, a North Beach parent and meteorologist for KCPQ-TV. "You kind of have to get through the work to get the fluency."

Everyone agrees students need to learn the basics in math. The influential National Council of Teachers of Mathematics reinforced that view last month by repeating what its leaders say they've always said: Fourth-graders should multiply whole numbers fluently. Second-graders should quickly recall the sum of two plus five.

But there are strong disagreements over how those skills should be taught and whether some schools and teachers, misunderstanding recommendations the council made in 1980, spend too much time exploring the ideas in math and too little time practicing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

In Seattle, that debate erupted recently as members of a committee discussed what new math textbooks Seattle should buy for its elementary and high schools, a decision that hasn't yet been made.

A new statewide group called Where's the Math? is loudly pushing for more schools to do what North Beach does, and for the state to rewrite its math standards as California did when parents and math professors raised similar concerns there.

Since the group put up its Web site in January, more than 500 people have joined its mailing list, said its director, Shalimar Backman. Backman says she's heard from parents whose students haven't learned how to do long division and from two teachers in Vancouver, Wash., who say students arrive in high schools without knowing their times tables cold.

The basics debate is far from the only issue in math instruction. In Washington in particular, low math scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) have everyone from Gov. Christine Gregoire on down looking hard at why students do so poorly. Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson recently said she would consider delaying the requirement that students pass the math section of the WASL to graduate.

There are concerns about how well teachers — especially in elementary schools — understand math, whether students should be required to take more than two years to graduate from high school and whether U.S. schools skip around too much or cover too much math in too little depth. Critics have said the U.S. math curriculum is "a mile wide and an inch deep."

The latter was what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics intended to address with its new report, "Curriculum Focal Points," which lists three key topics that should be taught deeply and well each year, from preschool through eighth grade.

Upcoming math events


7:30 tonight: Kane Hall, University of Washington, "Competitive Mathematics for a Global Economy," sponsored by Where's the Math? and featuring Stanford professor David Milgram, who helped rewrite California's math standards, and California State professor David Klein, lead author of the Fordham Foundation report, which gave Washington state's math standards a failing grade.

7-9 p.m. Oct. 16: Roosevelt High School auditorium, 1410 N.E. 66th St., "Mathematics and Our Children's Future," sponsored by Seattle Public Schools, the University of Washington College of Education, the Seattle Council PTSA and other organizations. It will feature Ruth Parker, a National Science Foundation supported researcher and chief executive of the Mathematics Education Collaborative, which is dedicated to building public support for math reform.

The math council hasn't changed its view that students need to be taught a much deeper understanding of math than most of their parents were. The organization has led the way to what's become known as "reform" math, which includes a strong focus on helping students develop a conceptual understanding of math, and an ability to use math to solve problems.

"Anybody who sees this as a return to basics hasn't read the document," said Francis Fennell, president of the council's board.

"Reform" math has become the trend across the nation. In this area, districts such as Bellevue, Shoreline and Northshore use textbooks with that approach.

It was a response, in the early 1980s, to an earlier wave of concern about math achievement, says Jack Lee, a professor of math at the University of Washington and a Seattle parent. But back then, he said, many worried about an overabundance of drills. Too often, he said, students who could do a sheet of long-division problems one day forgot how a month later.

Still, Lee is one who questions whether the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. He says it's like learning to ride a bike. It's one thing to take the bike apart, figure out how it works. But that doesn't mean a student can ride it to school. That, he says, takes practice.

"Just learning the algorithms and getting facile with them isn't enough," he says. "But neither is just coming to a deep understanding of what they mean."

In Tacoma, the school district just decided to purchase the Saxon math series, the same textbooks used at North Beach, to help bolster basic skills there.

"If you look at math the same way you look at reading, the first thing you do is teach the alphabet and memorize that," said Superintendent Charles Milligan. "Then you teach them vowels, and they memorize that.

"I don't remember anybody calling reading 'drill and kill.' "

Linh-Co Nguyen, a parent and former teacher, became concerned when she observed how many students in her children's former elementary school had to stop to think to find answers to simple addition and multiplication problems. And when her daughter's math homework required a lot of drawing — but just a single math problem.

"If it's an art lesson, that's fine," she said. "But this is supposed to be math."

Nguyen moved her three children to North Beach this fall because it offered a more traditional approach to math, using the Saxon texts, which were paid for by the PTA.

Saxon "just works so much better," said North Beach teacher Martha May. "It breaks concepts down into small steps. It's logical. Kids get it."

But at West Woodland Elementary, the school that Nguyen left, teacher Peter Donovan says he's used Saxon texts before, and found it difficult to inspire students. That approach appealed only to "linear" learners, he says — those happy to learn the steps and use them.

He finds extra practice sheets to supplement the district-supplied textbook, known as TERC, which he agrees doesn't have enough. He doesn't fault North Beach — where math scores on the WASL are nearly identical to West Woodland. But he says he's found the "reform" approach works better with many of the students who would struggle with traditional math.

That's also what Ilana Horn, an assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, found in her work with some Seattle high schools. And when she visited China, she said, she found Chinese parents expect the schools to teach math concepts and don't mind doing drills at home, much like U.S. parents willingly read to their children each night.

Carla Santorno, Seattle's new chief academic officer, like many, says it's important to strike the right balance. From what she's seen so far, she says some Seattle schools are doing a great job of that, but some are not. "We have not paid attention to numeracy as much as we should in some instances," she said.

Bergeson said her staff is studying how the new NCTM "focal points" compare with Washington's math learning standards. As part of that, she said, her office likely will also be more explicit about just how well students should be able to recall math facts, and when. But she stressed that doesn't mean going back to the math pedagogy of the past.

Back at North Beach, however, Nguyen said that on the first day of school, her daughter brought home a sheet of division problems for homework. And that, she said, is the kind of math she likes to see.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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