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Originally published May 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 11, 2007 at 8:10 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Calculating the effects of "discovery" math

Nearly 100 readers commented on my attack on "reform" math in the Sunday Times Opinion section of April 22. More than...

Nearly 100 readers commented on my attack on "reform" math in the Sunday Times Opinion section of April 22. More than 93 percent — not a level I'm used to — supported my position, which was that the "discovery" method of math wastes kids' time, that its group work promotes freeloading and that its reliance on calculators leaves students unable to solve problems on their own.

The only group against me was college professors. One at the University of Washington compared my argument to creationism, and a professor emeritus at Seattle University accused me of demagoguery. Both said my arguments weren't supported by the data.

They were supported, however, by experience. A mother in Everett wrote, "I discovered this past year that my eighth-grader is calculator-dependent ... The math skills she lacks stem from the fact that she never learned her basic math facts. She doesn't know how to do long division. She relies on her calculator for simple math problems."

Says a Bellevue mom with a son, 15: "Students are told to create their own algorithms to solve addition and subtraction problems, and these algorithms are frequently incomplete and unreliable. [Students] are presented with a little probability, introduced to matrices, presented with a smattering of this and that, but never achieve mastery of a topic. They are not taught long division. They are taught to use calculators to do the most simple problems."

Writes a Redmond mom: "Our fifth-grader has not been taught how to multiply double-digit numbers without a calculator, or what the heck to do with long division."

A Shoreline dad helping his seventh-grade daughter had forgotten the rule for solving a math problem. He discovered that the rule wasn't in the book. The kids were supposed to figure it out themselves. Math, he grumbled, was being taught "like philosophy, with no set rules and right answers."

One dad wrote that the desks in his daughter's class were arranged in fours so that kids could solve problems in groups.

The Bellevue mom said that it was "the most dominant person" who would solve the problem, leaving the others no wiser.

A Spokane dad asked: Do the kids take the WASL in groups?

The WASL test, which is geared to the reform math, was another irritant. "Who the hell is writing these questions?" complained a retired Boeing exec who mentors students in Bellevue. "The ones I saw contained a lot of extraneous and often confusing information. This was really bad for minority students who may not speak English properly."

Only a handful of readers defended reform math. One was a Seattle Ph.D. who wrote, "I love the math curriculum. It teaches kids how to think and understand instead of calculate. I'd much rather have my kid learn the process of discovery, which will serve him well throughout his life, than of becoming a Texas Instrument. That the curriculum baffles parents and doesn't make good test takers does not bother me in the least. Instead, I see this as a strength."

No other reader cited low test scores as a strength. Several said "reform" math had created a whole new market for Sylvan, Kumon or private tutors. A Redmond mom who moved from California three years ago plans to home-school her seventh-grader in math.

A Boeing engineer says he is "constantly amazed by the gap in math skills between our junior American engineers and those educated in any other country," especially those with the British system of education. He and his wife are teaching their two kids at home, using Singapore Math.

Another e-mail was from a Marysville-Pilchuck High School graduate who scored so low on a math placement test that it shocked him.

"I went back to some older textbooks my mother had," he writes. He worked with them, retook the test, and placed himself three levels higher. He is now graduating from the University of Washington, though, he writes, with "no thanks to my high-school math."

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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