Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dorothy's letter to SPS Directors

As posted on the Seattle Schools Blog:

I guess my summary would be using the anecdote with my son. He now loves math and can tackle harder problems with confidence because he knows that it all ought to fit together logically without guessing or magic. He has had experience seeing teachers and me demonstrating this again and again, and now can build on this strength to understand and work out problems on his own. But students without this core experience from teachers and from their texts do not develop this confidence or skill. That's the irony with "discovery" mathematics.

Dear Directors,

I have a Masters in Mathematics, have taught math to high school and college students and currently privately tutor middle school and high school students in mathematics. I also have a 10th grader at Roosevelt currently taking Honors Precalculus.

Please rethink the High School Math text book adoption recommendation. Good teachers will be able to work around the flaws in the Discovering series, but it will take extra effort and excellent teaching skills and excellent mathematical skills and experience. Not all math teachers have all those qualities, especially experience. New teachers deserve quality materials. Students deserve good tools, they deserve a quality text that they can reference on their own, that their parents can help them with and that supports comprehensive achievement. Additionally, do not be swayed by comments that the reading level of the Prentice Hall text is too hard. A quality math text, you will see that the sample problems to motivate the ideas are clear and mathematical. While good reading comprehension is always ideal, it is not necessary in order to follow a quality math text and learn the math. A teacher can better motivate good mathematical comprehension skills with a quality text.

The middle school students I tutor all have college educated parents, but all of whom concentrated in the humanities and work in non-math fields. The middle school texts are so befuddling that their well-educated parents cannot read them and help them with their homework. They don't see the bigger picture that the text is trying to teach -- because the books do a great job of hiding that goal. That's where I add value. While helping the students with their homework I know what the book is trying to teach, so I can focus. I usually also have to help them correct the erroneous assumptions that they have made from the "self-discovery" curriculum. Plus I take the time to insist on followup and practice with fluency -- that they do not get at school. I get results, but it is with only a few students. It is so frustrating to know that many other kids are in the same boat and do not have access to a parent or tutor like me who can help them overcome their math classes. Someone with limited reading skills would be much better off with a clear and comprehensive math text than one that requires any reading and discovery.

My son had uneven, mostly poor, math education in elementary school (APP). He hated math and was discouraged and confused by it. My solution was to homeschool him part-time for middle school. First he completed a semester of logic, an rigorous on-line course equivalent to a semester of college. Only after that breather from "math" did we pick up an algebra text and he discovered that it made sense. Roosevelt Math department has been terrific for him. But he completely credits my intervention with his love for math. He specifically credits my confidence that mathematics all fits together into a cohesive whole and my iterative examples demonstrating that over the years. That's what is missing from "discovery" math, and ironically, the very principle that "discovery" math purports to teach.

What you need to see is that a "traditional" math classroom actually has a lot of discovery, there is a lot of motivating the next step, clarity of goals and tools for students to make conjectures and synthesize the material. Very clearly paced, very clearly structured to build on previous material and rigorous -- the very qualities we want in a curriculum. I have not seen that at all in the "discovery" materials. Instead, confusion, no summation to ensure knowledge, and way too much bouncing from one topic to the next. It took the best mathematical minds 500 years to develop modern algebra. We now get ordinary kids to learn it in three years. They can, and they can understand it deeply and fluently. But they shouldn't be expected to discover all of it on their own. That's not pedagogically sound, nor practical.

Please do the right thing and choose Prentice Hall Mathematics over the Discovery series.

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