Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Great Article - Hinterlands Opinion from Eastern Washington

Here is a very informative article if you are new to the Washington Math Disaster. This article is extremely well written.

It comes from a local paper in Nine Mile Falls Washington:

The Lake Spokane Outpost link to the article is HERE

The article from the Lake Spokane OUTLOOK follows:

Where is the Math?
Juan Juan Moses

As we enter the threshold of a new leadership, the question that is most pertinent at this time is: Is the school doing its job of providing a good education for our children? In particular, how does our school measure up in math education in relation to the nation and the world? As math holds the key to a job market driven by technology and cutthroat global competition, are we giving our students the right tools with what we are teaching in the classroom? Where do our schools stand in the decades-old national math war? How will the new superintendent and the new leadership guide us in this murky, heated and emotional debate, with the future of our children as the high stake?

The battle on the reformed math, also dubbed as “fuzzy math”, has been ongoing nationally for decades. In 1983, Congress published a report “A Nation at Risk”, first sounding the alarm to the falling quality of American education, warning “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the schools. In response to the alarm and in an effort to make math “accessible” to everybody, The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published its “Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics” in 1989, rewriting the standards and direction of math in this country that set off the debate to this date. The 258-page report called for reformed math programs where the traditional method of drills and memorization of formulas and algorithms gave way to student-led discovery of math principles and concepts, with written explanation. In reformed math, teacher facilitation guides students’ processes of determining their answer, rather than emphasizing the accuracy of their work. Process and discovery are the emphasis in reformed math education. “Guess and check” method replaces traditional drills and algorithm. So if you see your child coming home with math homework emphasizing the process, explanation and justification of the answer to a simple question; your child getting credit for the work even when the answer is incorrect, you are seeing reformed math. If you see your child’s math textbook as a book almost more in reading than numbers, you are seeing reformed math. And if you are taken aback by your 6th grader asking you what is 7x9, you are not alone. Reformed math swept across the nation in the 90’s and beyond. Soon, parents, educators, administrators from coast to coast were embattled in the fierce debate, with the opponents’ concern about the watering down on a subject central to one’s future career, and the proponents’ staunch defense that reformed math is “math for the masses” adapted to the changing times.

In late 1999, an open letter addressed to the then Secretary of Education, signed by over 200 mathematicians, including four Nobel Prize recipients, asked for the department’s withdrawal of endorsement on the curricula based upon the NCTM’s idea of reformed math. Most recently, (The NCTM Focal Points September 2007) NCTM reversed its own stand on reformed math and called for a return to the more traditional approach to the subject. But in the meantime, U.S. continues to tank at the bottom in international student assessment tests, while funding for education continues to go up. By 8th grade, US students are 2-3 years behind their global peers from places like Singapore and Japan. And the gap widens as the grade level rises. We continue to see the numbers of home grown engineers and mathematicians decline through the years. The academic and economic impact of the failure on this subject is staggering. According to the University of Washington –Seattle Student Planner for year 2007-2008, “almost half the entering freshmen place into MATH 098”, a remedial math class that is equivalent to the second year of high school algebra. While the country goes increasingly high tech, the supplies of technical workers increasingly comes from abroad. Is it any coincidence that tutoring services like Sylvan Learning Center are a booming business and home schooling is enjoying a robust growth?

But what do all these have to do with the superintendent search and new leadership?

Let’s take a look at how the battle unfolds closer to home. Terry Bergeson, the state superintendent of the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, herself a strong proponent of reformed math, took office in 1997. She has been largely responsible for the development of the WASL math test, a very important link that contributes to the shambles that the Washington math is in today. Since WASL is based on reformed math, schools state wide have to adapt to a curriculum that teaches to the concept in order to pass the test. Have you noticed when you talk to your child’s teacher, at conference or otherwise, just about everyone will evoke WASL sooner than later? It is important that we have a standard that we measure our success by, but in this case, is the standard the problem itself? In the State of State Math Standards, a state by state evaluation on math education published in January 2005 by Fordham Foundation, a Washington D.C based organization that supports the research and projects of national significance on elementary and secondary education, Washington state received a glaring F. (The average for the nation is C.) The score is based on the four categories of the state standard studied: Clarity, (F) content (D), Reason, (F) and negative qualities (F). The finding concluded that “Overall, the Washington Standards are poorly written and needlessly voluminous.” Which means, if you are trying to figure out what your child should be able to do by the end of the school year, and you get on the OSPI web site trying to find out, under the GLE heading (grade level expectation), instead of clear cut standard such as a 4th grader should be able to do long division by hand, and 3 digit multiplication, you get vague literature like this “the student uses mathematical reasoning,” and “the student understands how mathematical ideas connect within mathematics, to other subject areas, and to real-life situations.” After plowing through the cumbersome writing, chances are you will be more befuddled and frustrated than ever.

Reformed math was introduced in Nine Mile School District in 2002, just as many districts nation wide were reversing the fad. According to the superintendent’s message in Eye on Education, dated Dec 06, then Superintendent Michael Green wrote: “Five years ago, the Nine Mile Falls School District began a process aimed at the improvement of mathematics performance of Nine Mile students. After a lengthy research process we selected materials that were highly aligned to what the state of Washington was telling us we must teach in mathematics. These textbooks approached mathematics from a problem solving basis that has proven successful in other schools at improving achievement.” What kind of achievement did he mean? WASL scores or college placement rate, which is the ultimate measurement of a school’s achievement? But in this case, Green clearly meant the WASL scores as he went on to cite the improvement of WASL test scores afterwards, noting that with the implementation of reformed math curricula, the percentage for the two categories of students-----the ones well below the standard and the one just below the standard, fell dramatically. But such “achievement” is partly what is wrong with reformed math, critics argued. In the name of raising the bottom performers and trying to bring everybody to a middle ground, the system is set up at the expense of the high performers. Is the idea of bringing everybody to a minimal standard good enough? Is “equality” in class feasible or realistic in a capitalist society? Even in a socialist country like China, classroom competition has always been “no holds barred”.

Lakeside High School math teacher Larry Carpenter watched in frustration as the traditional math such as Algebra I and Geometry were replaced one by one by the reformed math curriculum. His analysis of the WASL numbers pointed out a different side of the numbers that Supt. Green did not cover. While the percentage of the bottom students is improving, the percentage of the top level math performers declined as well. It went from a 30.1% in 04 (the last year traditional math was taught) to a 20.9% in 05, and a 17.9% in 06. With a gain back to 23.2% in 07, the average is still a 6.9% decline in the four years since reformed math came to Nine Mile Falls. Carpenter points out the increase in WASL scores could be attributed to the extra classes and time devoted to teaching in align to the test. He compares teaching math to basketball drills.

“Core math (a curriculum of reformed math that LSH uses) is taught by organizing students into groups. The teacher is more of a facilitator. The students are expected to “discover” how to solve a problem, with the faster students leading the slower ones. When you are a basketball coach, you would not send your players out to the floor to “discover” an offense. If you are a medical student, you would be frustrated if your professor told you to get with a group and “discover” how to take out someone’s gall bladder. When I compared Core III (third year of reformed math) to Algebra II ( third year of traditional math) I found more than 70 topics that I normally taught in Algebra II missing in Core III”
For some local families, the wake up call was both dramatic and urgent. Virginia Ramshaw’s daughter, Rebecca Ramshaw, who had enjoyed straight A’s and a 3.925 GPA, an A student in the reformed math curriculum, took a pre-SAT test in her sophomore year in 2005 and scored in the 7th percentile of all sophomores who took the test nationwide. Virginia had witnessed Rebecca’s increasing frustration with math. It perplexed her as the child had always enjoyed school and excelled in every subject. Not until she saw the score of Rebecca’s SAT did she fully grasp the gravity of the failure of the math curriculum that Rebecca was suffering through. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Rebecca started taking traditional math with Larry Carpenter and the hard working child was determined to catch up. Her most recent SAT scores show a dramatic improvement from 7th percentile to a 63th percentile nationwide. As a participant who has abundant experience in both curriculums, Rebecca went on to testify the failure of reformed math to the state legislature in Jan 07, calling the reformed math “a poison to our educational system”.
The story of Maureen Joplin and her daughters illustrates just how far a concerned parent is willing to go to ensure her children get a good math education.
Trouble started when Maureen and her family moved back to Nine Mile back in 2003, the year the district implemented reformed math. Her oldest daughter, Lauren, who was a sixth-grader at Lakeside Middle School then, was bored with math. The curriculum moved at a snail pace. Maureen, who had some experience with reformed math in the districts the family moved from, was shocked to learn that reformed math curriculum had completely replaced traditional math, which a lot of districts were using still as a supplement. By 8th grade, Lauren was unable to do double digit multiplication and division without the aid of calculator. In addition, Lauren had no clue how to compute fractions. Still, Maureen kept waiting for the time when Lauren would enter high school and got some “real math”. When she was informed that the traditional subjects of Algebra, geometry, trigonometry were being replaced by the reformed curriculum, she realized precious time had been wasted by naively hoping it would get better. It was time to do something.

In Feb 06, Maureen, along with Virginia Ramshaw, Jill Lundgren, Larry Carpenter and a group of students, did a presentation to the school board. They invited Shannon Overbay and Tom Mckenzie, both math professors from Gonzaga University, and Lyle Cochran, math professor from Whitworth University, to testify to the inadequacy of the reformed math. The professors emphatically pointed out that reformed math did not adequately prepare students for college. In a letter addressed to Where’s The Math, a group dedicated to the return of traditional math, Prof. Overbay wrote: “We are raising a generation of mathematically illiterate kids. The irony is that the claim of these reform programs is that they make math more accessible. The problem is that in watering down the math, they have removed all rich mathematical content, the practice of standard skill and algorithms, and the foundation for later study of advanced mathematics. The kids can get A’s in this reformed math, they come out with no skills and no deep understanding (again, something the new programs claim to promote.)” Prof. Overbay went on to stress the importance of basic pencil and paper skills from elementary grades on, and the importance of providing opportunities for the ones with potential to develop and excel. “The current trend of one “math for the masses” hurts all students at all levels”, she wrote. “We need to ensure that “No Child Left Behind” does not become “No child Allowed to Excel.

At the Feb 06 presentation, the parents’ group asked the school board to offer a dual track option and let the students make the choice of either reformed math or traditional math. The high school students that testified voiced their frustration. The consistent complaint from these students was that they were put in a mixed group situation to work, compromising their ability to excel at their own pace. They were resentful of being held back and used to drag along slower achievers. Student James Gestner wrote: “I have taken both the Core math (reformed math) and traditional math these past three years. Many of my fellow students agree that Core Math is inferior to the traditional system. Crippling flaws in the learning process prevent us from learning to our fullest.” These were student William Yukl’s own words at the presentation: “I certainly don’t hate Core math, however, I feel that it is flawed. It attempts to make students work harder on their own in order to connect to the material more. This sounds good, but it is done with too much group work and the success of the group affects your grade. There are often groups made of “slackers” and “hard workers”, where the slackers refuse to work and the (hard) workers are forced to pick up the slack……….I don’t mind helping others in my class, but I hate the fact that part of my grade rests on the shoulders of students who just don’t feel like working. Another concern I have is about preparation for college. Isn’t high school the place and time to prepare for college? This Core program seems completely opposite of the college’s mathematics programs, so how is that properly preparing me for college?” Again and again, these frustrated students voiced their displeasure and concern of having their grade tied to group performance, the deception of good grades in reformed programs, the fallacy of “ discovery” and “guess and check” method, (imagine “guessing and checking” your way to that rocket launching pad when you are trying to send that rocket to the moon.)

In the end, the board collectively voted against a dual track option but kept Algebra 2 and Calculus in the system. But for Maureen Joplin, it was too late. “I never ever had thought I would home school”, she said. But the moment of truth hit like a brick when “during one of the meetings with the board, then Supt Green admitted that “Yes, I implemented a flawed curriculum because I had to.” Those words still echo in my head today. And that alone is what gave me the courage of pulling my then 8th grader from the school curriculum and home school my younger one today.” Maureen stated today. Her younger daughter, Carol, a 7th grader today, studies math daily in the family car in the parking lot of the middle school with her mother. Policy at the middle school rules out studying a non-district approved curriculum for math in the building. The school scheduled Carol’s math period for first period to avoid further disruption of the day. Because the family lives too far for the mother to drive her back after dropping off the older daughter at the high school, mother and daughter work in the parking lot every morning for 45 minutes on Carol’s math.

Bowing to the state-wide outcry of parents, educators and legislators alike, OSPI is currently in the process of rewriting the math standard. It has hired the Dana Center of Austin, Texas to oversee the revision of math standards. Dana Center wrote the standards for Texas that was rated by Fordham Foundation with a C. It was widely recognized that Dana was pivotal in Texas’ adoption of reformed curricula. The bid came at a price of $770 K to the taxpayers, almost 6 times more than the competing bid from the Standardswork, a consulting firm that guided California and Indiana to their present A rating as the best in the nation. So the question is WHY? What is the logic for the choice? Is there something more than just the math standards involved? Is there something the public is not being told?

The unfortunate fact is that while the political fallacy goes on, our children cannot wait. Grade after grade they grow up and enter an economy more and more driven by technology and a cutthroat global economy. They now not only face challenges from states with excellent math standards, but their peers from all over the world. In China, English has become a core subject, together with math and reading; which means, the Chinese teach English from first grade on. So does India. And a generation of new wealth brought on by the powerful economic advances in these countries will soon financially enable their children to attend American colleges. So in a global economy, if English is no longer a barrier for global competitors and dollars are not an issue for many, if we don’t have the universal language---math, to compete, what do we have?

In the end, there are many more questions than answers. Who decides what kind of math our children get based on what rationale? Are there justifications to the choice of curriculum that the public is not informed about? Should the taxpayer, after shouldering the burdens of taxes, be left to scramble to pay more for tutoring, supplementing, questioning and wondering? Where do the candidates stand on these issues? Where does the board, with its three new members, stand on these issue?
Perhaps the district will be able to answer some of these questions. Perhaps we can open the channels for dialogue between the policy makers and their constituents. If you are concerned, and do not know where to begin to navigate this maze, tonight’s candidates open forum will be a good place to start. Go find out who they are and what they stand for.

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