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Monday, January 10, 2011

Seattle parent hopes "Betrayed" lights fire against reform math

Note from Laurie Rogers: Reform math, excessive constructivism, and persistent administrator denial and obstruction have sunk this great country into a mathematical Dark Ages, severely limiting the futures of millions of children and devastating our supply of STEM professionals. Every week, I receive emails from perplexed, frustrated and angry parents, teachers and community advocates. A Seattle parent wrote to me Jan. 7, 2011, to comment on my book "Betrayed." Her email is republished here with her permission:

[From personal email, Jan. 7, 2011]:

"Dear Ms. Rogers,

"I just finished your chapter on curriculum. It feels like you and I have traveled the same road, bumping our heads against the same barriers. We just happen to be on opposite sides of the state.

"My frustration started when my sons attended Seattle public high schools. One attended a new, academically challenging small high school in the shadow of the Space Needle. I was told that the Core Plus math curriculum would use engaging math problems that would relate better to real-life situations. It sounded good, but he was very frustrated and needed after-school tutoring and an additional outside tutor to figure them out.

"Our other son attended another popular public high school in Seattle. I asked his math teacher if he liked the Integrated Math curriculum and he said there were better choices out there. That led me to Where’s the Math? and Cliff Mass, the University of Washington science professor who is a critic of reform math. The declining math pass rates he showed for entry-level students at the University of Washington indicated that the math problem went far beyond my kids.

"The more research I did, the worse it looked. I read the 2007 studies of William Hook, the University of Victoria researcher who compared Saxon Math in Calif. to reform programs. He found stunning improvements from Saxon Math, even in economically challenged districts. I also read the National Math Panel report, which panned the use of overly long textbooks without a clear foundation in authentic algebra. I visited our neighborhood elementary school and noticed their Everyday Math textbooks were long and complex, devoting entire chapters to the use of calculators.

"I started writing to our Seattle School District Board members, asking why they were using reform math. They had different administrators come and go, choosing reform textbooks from the elementary through high school level in all Seattle public schools. Then they would leave the district and the kids with the consequences of these decisions.

"I directly challenged Dr. Terry Bergeson in Olympia, the former state Superintendent of Public Instruction, who spent a fortune on supplemental materials to train teachers on reform math. Her failed WASL test was also expensive and gave kids credit for showing their work even if they got the answers wrong. How does that help when they test into remedial math courses in college?

"We recently had the chance for a better textbook at the high school level in Seattle. Like many parents, I wrote the Seattle School Board again to argue for the Prentice Hall books over the Discovering series. Although our director Michael DeBell voted against Discovering, he was unable to convince the other directors. That decision ended up in court with an initial judgment for the parents. The judge ruled that the district’s adoption of the Discovering series was arbitrary and capricious. But instead of replacing the books with better ones, the district is appealing.

"I am sad to see so many parents fleeing public schools for expensive private ones in Seattle. Yet the administrators go along and keep making the same arguments for reform math. I hope your book can light a fire under them.

"Thank you."

Georgi Krom
(1971 graduate of Spokane's Lewis and Clark High School)

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column or commentary on public education, please write to me at Please limit comments to not more than 1,000 words. Columns and commentaries might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns and commentaries are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.


Anthony said...

While I believe there are many good points to be found here, the idea of receiving credit for showing work is not a bad one really. Too often students can get away with simply writing down an answer. How can I, as an educator, tell if a student understands the concept? Perhaps he/she doesn't and simply copied a friend or the back of the book.

Showing work allows me see where misconceptions lie. Sometimes the problem is a simply mistake. A student might add 5 + 2 and get 8 accidentally. Should I give a 0 for this if that mistaken step was one error in a much larger problem? I do not believe so. Correct answers are important but so is understanding the process of getting to those answers.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Hi, Anthony.

I understand what you're saying about process. Today's approach to math education lacks good process. You are exactly correct that students are allowed - even encouraged - to do "mental math," and then to write a single number for an answer. I agree with you that this is bad process.

What this bad process does is encourage arithmetic mistakes and errors in understanding. It prevents teachers from seeing where the problems arose, it prevents students from checking their work properly, and it avoids teaching students to do logical, orderly work, like this:
1. write the equation;
2. fill in what you know;
3. solve for the variable;
4. answer the question being asked;
5. check your work).

Hence, I agree that we want to teach good process, and I also can see encouraging the use of that good process with partial credit.

A common parent and teacher complaint, however, is that current math tests and curricula place more value on drawings and paragraphs than on getting the correct answer. More value appears to be placed on using loopy reform processes (even if they come up with wrong answers) than on the more efficient standard algorithms (even if they come up with the correct answers).

It sounds crazy, impossible, but I assure you that teachers and parents see this preference for reform - even when incorrect - all of the time.

As you know, in the "real world," correct answers in math are critically important. No engineering company wants employees to sit and write paragraphs about their mathematical thinking and discover their way to process. Those companies want efficiency and correct answers. Both of these things are largely missing from America's K-12 math education.

Engineers also don't get partial credit if they drew nice pictures of the bridge they were designing, but failed to properly account for the weight of the traffic over it.

Anonymous said...

Ya know, it just seems like there are too many people in upper levels of district managements, as well as OSPI, that don't seem to respond to anyone who isn't part of their management group. Unless they run a large software company.

Look at the folks at OSPI. I see a number of people who are working on educational decisions who don't have an education background. There are a number of people there who don't have classroom experience, yet they are making decisions that will effect classrooms teachers.

The reason the Japanese beat the American auto industry was because they let the floor worker in on the decision making process AND LISTENED TO THEM WHEN THEY MADE SUGGESTIONS. It seems that there are too many administrators who believe that they know better than anyone else and don't have to listen to them. Parents don't know anything; clssroom teachers don't know anything; university academics don't know anything. School board directors are volunteers, don't know anything and are likely to defer to adminstrators.

There is no mechanism to challenge school administrators; you can't vote them out, they hire their own; while they may get the same percentage pay raise, it's based on a larger salary (many district supers make more money than the governor); they have their own way of bullying and stonewalling anyone who challenges them-parents, teachers, anyone. And when they get it wrong, the damage is severe.

Who's really running the schools? Follow the money. Who's getting the money for all these tests and texts? Pearson, among others. Who owns whom?

Anthony said...

In regards to the idea of putting more weight on drawings and paragraphs, I will soon be giving a test where some problems will be worth 3 points. Of these, 2 points will be given for having correct work shown. While this may seem illogical to have the work be worth more than the correct solution, I have my reasons for this.

First, the correct processes are largely missing from student knowledge as we have mentioned. In order to fill in this gap, I must find methods of getting students to show their processes. Thus, they are rewarded for showing work. If the processes are logically correct, they get points regardless of whether a mathematical solution is correct. My philosophy is that if we can get their processes to be logically consistent then the correct solutions will occur in time. I have used this approach before with success.

Secondly, I need something which allows me to access their knowledge. Simply seeing solutions does not provide this to me. If I can see their thought processes, then I can better judge how to tailor future lessons or help individual students. Without this, I am teaching in the dark, so to speak.

As for “loopy reform processes” I can assure you that my classroom does not feature those. In the past, I have strongly questioned some reform methods and even shown some to be mathematically inconsistent with our number system. My students may learn several methods of doing a problem. However, all are efficient methods which students may chose to use based on their preferences. If a drawing would help visualization, I might require it especially initially. As for paragraphs, I do at times make students put their solutions into writing as that is an important skill. An engineer does not simply say “x = 2”. They will write reports on their solution and explanations of why it works.

On that note, our students are also not engineers. So we cannot quite hold them to those standards yet. In time, we have to expect their solutions to be more accurate. If we simply graded on “right vs wrong” then students would quickly lose confidence in their ability. Partial credit is a method of showing students progress is being made even if not all solutions are correct. It also provides a more effective method of assessing as two students can both miss half the problems and be far apart in their understandings.

One student might simply have made some computational errors while the other simply does not begin to understand half of the problems. Are these students equivalent? As engineers, they might be. As students, the first know more than the second and thus deserves a higher score to reflect this.

bounce said...

Are you being paid by a publishing company (perhaps Saxon) to push Saxon math?

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Dear "bounce":

I can't speak for anyone else who posts here, but I'm not being paid by anyone to push anything.

I like the Saxon Math program. I wanted a math program that is efficient, sufficient, and that will lead my daughter to proficiency in pre-college mathematics.

I have tried several different textbooks, and I always come back to Saxon -- I'm talking about the older textbooks from the 1990s and early 2000s that you find secondhand, not necessarily the ones being published now.

The older versions of Saxon Math are clear, concise, contain sufficient practice, and contain sufficient material. I have used Saxon Math to tutor my daughter for four years - from Saxon 6/5 halfway through Algebra II. She has excellent skills, and she just started using a calculator for trigonometry.

I don't see the point in being cagey about it. People want to know how to help their children. Saxon Math, supplemented with Singapore Math, has been extremely helpful to my family. I say a thank you to John Saxon every day I sit down to work on mathematics.

I recommend Saxon Math, and I do that for free.

Carole said...

The loss of 'drill and kill' in the math classroom has been part of the intentional dumbing down of our students. Interesting that 'practice makes perfect' works okay for sports practice, music, etc? It is the same game but a different name. This all coincided with the deliberate loss of diagramming sentences that gave structure,logic, and a mental and visual understanding to every sentence a student wrote. You can't teach what you don't know or understand, and our teachers coming in for the last 25 years have been dummied down to do a dummied down curriculum. The nonsense of worrying about the child's self esteem has taken precedence over mental rigor. This process has been purposely planned and in the works since the 1950s. Read 'The Deliberate Dumbing Down of American Schools', by Charlotte Iserby. As an insider she got fired when she blew the whistle on the policies that had been put into place by the Department of Education, which are still in existence obviously today. It is folly to think that we have fallen so far down all across America with all the money we have poured into the system, and yet it is still in a downward spiral sham. Now the push is to give every student a computer in America so they can 'learn', when research has shown that direct one on one teaching with a live person is the most effective way to learn. This goes far deeper than meets the eye.