Subject: “Research That Matters 5: Taking Measure”
(Where’s The Math?, February 5, 2008)
UW School of Education - Advocates of Reform Math
Few groups in Washington State are more responsible for the dismal state of math education than the UW School of Education. For over a decade, School of Education faculty have led the movement towards inquiry-based “reform” math, influencing a generation of future teachers of its value and pushing such curricula on local school districts. As the deficiencies with inquiry-based math have become increasingly evident, ranging from poor WASL scores to high remediation rates for freshmen entering state colleges, groups such as Where’s The Math? as well as parents and educators, have become increasingly vocal and active. The State Legislature has become sensitized to this issue and passed legislation (HB 1906) that called for an evaluation of the State’s reform-based math standards and curricula. This document (“ Washington State Mathematics: Review and Recommendations” by Strategic Teaching) was a severe indictment of current math standards and today two standards, one reflecting the reform approach and another, based on well-proven international standards, are in competition. In a transparent attempt to maintain the failing status quo, to retain its central position in math education in the State, and to criticize community groups such as Where’s The Math?, the UW School of Education has released a lavish and misleading brochure Research that Matters 5: Taking Measure. An examination of this brochure reveals much about the mindset prevalent in the UW School of Education, and how that worldview has led to the poor math education experienced by Washington State students.
UW Education Says End the Math Wars - but on Their Terms
A central focus of the brochure is its criticism of the current “math wars,” with Dean Patricia Wasley calling them “divisive and counterproductive.” Conveniently, the UW School of Education is ready to “broker a truce.” But it is a one-side truce, with the brochure highlighting the school’s continued dedication to reform math approaches, and its “students expected to initiate these dialogues when they take inquiry-based math methods out into schools.” Instead of promoting an open dialog, this brochure represents the School of Education’s attempt to quiet dissent. But why should one side of this debate be suppressed? Why should parents be silent when their children reach high school without knowing basic math facts and nearly half of Washington State students fail the 10th grade math WASL, a test representing middle school math at best? Why should professors at State colleges and universities remain unheard when the majority of incoming students require remediation?
UW Education Confuses Both Math and the Issues
The brochure mischaracterizes the nature of the two sides of this debate. It is not between “traditionalists” and inquiry-math advocates, but rather between those supporting world-class math curricula used in those nations and states whose students have performed best in math, and those, like UW education professors, who believe that math must be discovered and invented individually and that mastery of key algorithms is not essential. Understanding and the ability to “do” math are not at odds, and objective evidence is clear that the approaches favored by the UW School of Education have provided neither.
UW Education Asks: Why Do We Need Math When We Have Computers?
Perhaps the most disturbing portion of the brochure is in its section “Where’s the Math”, an obvious play on the name of the state’s largest group pushing for world-class mathematics instruction, and one of the most vocal critics of the School of Education math pedagogy. UW Education professors claim to have evaluated the use of math by professionals such as architects and roadway engineers, as well as average people in their daily lives. “In consequential financial situations”, the brochure notes, “they saw little school-like math in action.” The brochure concludes that real math, with equations, factoring, and algorithms is unused, and that the math taught in schools “is not the math we actually need.” The implication of the UW research is that people don’t require an understanding of the mathematics underpinning our lives or the ability to actually complete or comprehend important computations without the aid of calculators or preprogrammed computers. But this view is fundamentally flawed. Mathematics is one of the gifts of our intellectual heritage and ignorance of its major aspects leaves an individual uneducated in the most profound sense. We rarely use historical information in our daily lives, yet a study of history deepens our appreciation of human relations and the evolution of societies. Should we stop teaching history? Those who apply technology often use preprogrammed applications for convenience, but the proper use of such aids depends on knowledge of the underlying mathematics. There is little doubt that scientists and technologists, upon whose shoulders much of the future rests, must have a deep understanding of the underpinnings and algorithms of mathematics. Are we not going to give every student the opportunity to aspire to such critical positions? In addition, is it not possible that some of the major national problems of sub-prime mortgages and social security funding might have been better handled if the population had a better understanding of mathematics?
Equity for Whom?
According to a UW Education faculty member “it seems a fairly elitist thing to push algorithmic math as mathematics instruction for all students.” But since algorithms, from factoring to manipulation of fractions, are critical to higher math what is the alternative? Is it elitist to insure that all students have the opportunity and skills to succeed in our increasingly technological world?
UW Education Intervenes in the State’s Debate on Math Education
The glossy UW brochure was sent around the state in a clear attempt to alter the current debate on math education and to lessen the building momentum towards a much-needed revision in State math standards and curricula. Distributed to every state legislator, there are even questions regarding the use of college funds for such an obvious attempt at lobbying. The UW School of Education seems oblivious to the downward spiral of state math education and its role in supporting a failing approach. Examining the title of the brochure, it is true that valid research at the UW School of Education should matter, but the school’s lack of objectivity, deficit of empirical support, and its maintenance of failing educational fads are harming the future of Washington State and its students. We should expect more from the State’s flagship university.
Contact: Lyng Wong (425) 806-7472