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Originally published Tuesday, June 4, 2013 at 4:14 PM

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Bring back real math to Seattle schools

The Seattle School Board is coming up on another chance to junk “discovery math.” Time to do it, argues editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey.

Times editorial columnist

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In the past decade, the Seattle School Board chose “discovery math” books for the public schools. The chance to correct these mistaken decisions begins next year with new texts for grades K-5.

Due for replacement are the “Everyday Math” books. The board should also junk the middle schools’ “Connected Math Project” books. These are the ones my son, who was educated entirely in Seattle, remembers as those pretty little workbooks that just about killed his interest in math.

In a few days he graduates with a university degree in applied mathematics. I condemn the “discovery math” on his authority.

In “discovery math,” students are expected to discover concepts and mathematical algorithms, often in groups. Then they write little essays on how they reached their answers.

It is also called “fuzzy math” because it often wants an estimate rather than the right answer. It downplays paper-and-pencil work, letting the students use calculators.

This approach babies students. Here is an exercise in the sixth-grade book: “Choose a whole number between 10 and 100 that you especially like. In your notebook record that number. Explain why you chose that number. List three or four mathematical facts about your number.”

This is asking students to write, not calculate.

Math tutors, who offer first aid to the roadkill of this pedagogy, have a particular disdain for it. So do parents.

School Board member Michael DeBell, who voted against “discovery” texts in 2009 (and lost), says he “struggled with helping my own children” with books that presented math in a goofy way.

“At some level it just makes you feel small,” he says.

This word-heavy, number-light curriculum tends to leave students unsure of how to divide large numbers, multiply fractions, deal with exponents, negative numbers, etc.

Seventy percent of Seattle Community College students require remediation in math, and at the University of Washington, professor Cliff Mass says freshmen are coming to his Atmospheric Sciences 101 class “extremely weak” in math. At least, his U.S. students are that way. The ones from China do better.

Mass is one of the leaders in Where’s the Math, a group that pushed in 2009 for “real math” textbooks and lost by one vote on the school board. They now gear up again.

One thing in their favor is the 2011 election of board member Marty McLaren, who won her seat as a champion of real math. She sued to block the board’s 2009 decision, lost the case on appeal, but won her seat from the board member who had voted for the current books.

The other good omen has been resistance from teachers and schools. Early on, the district allowed North Beach Elementary to switch to Saxon Math, a traditional curriculum, and Schmitz Park Elementary to switch to Singapore Math, a system of no-nonsense instruction using “visual algebra.” Both have done well.

Craig Parsley, the evangelist of Singapore Math at Schmitz Park, has gone on to Seattle’s new K-5 STEM School, and teaches the same curriculum there. “This is the system Seattle needs to use,” he says.

Most dramatic has been the success of Mercer Middle School on Beacon Hill, a high-immigrant, low-income district. As part of a package of reforms, Mercer junked much of the official “discovery math,” replacing it with straightforward instruction. Its test scores are up sharply and its racial-achievement gaps have narrowed.

Franklin High, to which Mercer sends most of its students, is quietly making its math curriculum more like Mercer’s.

Real math is coming back. Let’s welcome it.

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


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