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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why I quit teaching math at SFCC

[Note from Laurie Rogers: School is almost out. Many high school graduates will be eager to begin college. Most graduates will test into remedial math, however, and they will have to take one or more non-credit-bearing remedial math classes BEFORE they begin college-level math classes.

Knowledge is power, so I'm republishing with permission an article about remedial math at Spokane Falls Community College. It first appeared (edited) in the Jan. 19, 2011, edition of The Inlander.

The first time I spoke with Clint Thatcher, last fall, he told me that remedial math classes at SFCC had changed -- to something that sounded similar to the failed reform/constructivist approach we see in Spokane Public Schools. I wanted to confirm his story, so I called over to SFCC and talked to a woman in the math department. She seemed surprised that I would be critical of reform math. She said the problem at SFCC wasn't that students hadn't learned math in Spokane Public Schools; it was that they had forgotten it.

I drove to SFCC to look at the new textbook for remedial math. An instructor there loaned me his copy, and after I confirmed Clint's impression of it, that instructor and I chatted about this new approach. The instructor suggested (for example) using a hot air balloon model in place of the number line model. (You put sand in and numbers get bigger, and you take sand out and numbers get smaller.) I asked him where the zero was in his balloon model, where negatives and fractions were. He couldn't say. Why can't students just learn the number line? I asked. He didn't say.

Heads up, folks. Pay attention to what's being taught in any remedial math class -- in K-12 or in college. -- L.R.]


Why I Quit Teaching Math at SFCC

By Clint Thatcher, retired Air Force bombardier and retired math instructor

The time to quit the best job in the world is right before you get tired of it.

After spending 20 years in the B-52s and retiring from the U.S. Air Force, I spent the last 16 years as a math teacher. I can truly say that teaching mathematics was the greatest and most emotionally gratifying experience of my life. I certainly did not want to quit teaching but I was told to change my traditional approach to teaching math to a group-centered, intuitive and discovery approach. I refused to change my successful method and quit the job I loved so much.

I have been teaching developmental algebra for 12 years at Spokane Falls Community College and have had a 95% success rate with the students. Nine out of ten students that enroll at SFCC are placed into developmental math. It is sad to think that 90% of all entering college students didn’t retain enough algebra skills to pass the math assessment test to be placed into a college-level math class.

By the way, completing the developmental math series does not count toward a degree program and has no bearing on the student’s GPA. Developmental math classes are five-hour courses and cost the same as a college-level class. It takes some students three or four attempts to complete one class.

The dean of Math and Sciences (and a former teacher), stated that only one in three students completed the dev-math series. Failing to complete the series effectively ends the student’s college career. It is apparent that something must be done to change the current outcomes. Money was secured through the Title III program and was used to change the dev-math program at SFCC. The new program replaced the Math 91, 92, 99 series (which implemented the more traditional lecture approach) with Math 93, 94, 98. With a change in numbers also came a change in book and teaching methodology. All teachers had to go through professional training in order to teach the new series.

The new curriculum style is for students to collaborate in groups to find the best way to answer or solve a particular problem. This method reduces -- and for some teachers eliminates -- lecture altogether. It took brilliant men and women decades to formulate the laws of math that we have today. Now they want our students to formulate these same laws in a 50-minute class. This methodology is also the darling of the local and many other school districts, and we wonder why our children are graduating with minimal math skills.

Many of my students would be absolutely lost without a calculator. They have lost the basic skills of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing real numbers. They have essentially zero skills when it comes to dealing with fractions. We have strayed so far away from learning basic math skills that our college-bound students are entering a world that is totally foreign to them. So what does SFCC do? They change the math world to match what the students had in K-12.

I say we must first teach our students time-honored procedural mathematics that produces step-by-step methodology, and then introduce basic-skill problems that use these procedures. When their skill levels reach a certain proficiency, then introduce real-world problems where group collaboration can be of great benefit. The new method is to reverse the process and it is terribly inefficient. Students will not only become frustrated but will learn very little mathematics when it is all said and done.

I am enormously concerned for the future of our students to have the necessary math skills to fulfill the high-tech positions that have made this nation what it was. Oh, it is still a great nation, but we are importing a large portion of our high-tech workers to maintain our high status. We know there is a problem when we are rated 25th out of the top 30 industrial nations in math skills.

A Dec. 4, 2010, article by John Barber in The Spokesman-Review titled “Math ‘reform’ fails our kids” has spurred me to write this article, not only as a concerned teacher, but also to open up the eyes of parents who realize the system is failing their children. Where better, than in Spokane, to start a movement of parents and teachers to change back to the traditional and proven way of teaching mathematics?

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns 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 are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

This material is copyrighted.
For permission to republish or quote from this article, please write to Clint Thatcher at .


Anonymous said...

When reform math hit the public schools, I got out, got a Masters and have been teaching at the college level.

I (and many others) knew that the reform curriculum wouldn't prepare students for college-level work - and they don't.

So now, of course, we have the "crisis" of developmental math at community colleges and universities so the answer - reform curriculum!

It's sad really, because it's clear that the students aren't learning and yet the bad curriculum just keeps getting pushed.

Whether it's IMP, Core-Plus, Everyday Math, whatever, the public schools have abdicated their responsibility and now the universities are being asked to do the same.

Anonymous said...

I was a high school physics teacher for three years and I can corroborate what this author says.

If you look at the history of physics you'll find very talented people who slaved away for decades to understand what is summarized today in a few pages in a textbook. Yet, according to the "inquiry" model, a bunch of uninterested teenagers will follow along in the same mental footsteps during a 90 minute class.

Anonymous said...

it interesting to see the decline in academic performance so closely associated with the implementation of new curriculum.

Jim Brady, Dean of Computing, Math and Science, SFCC said...

I appreciate the concern with student success in mathematics. Even if we don't always agree as to the best path to take, I am delighted that we share a concern for mathematics. However, we face a formidable challenge balancing the desire for clear bullet points to champion and the need to gain the breadth of undertsanding required for responsible action.
I have no qualms with Clint or any other individual speaking from their personal principles or experience. However, to speak as an authority on curriculum and pedagogy does imply some responsibility toward establishing credentials. For example, I have a Bachelor's in Secondary Education with a Math major and a Physics minor, a Master's of Science degree in Mathematics and 20 years experience teaching mathematics courses ranging from arithmetic to differential equations. I have more than a passing concern in math education. My father served for 20 years in the military as a mechanic and a flight engineer. He is a wise man and a man of great character. That does not imply that he is an expert on teaching mathematics, although I do respect his opinions.
We did indeed change the developmental curriculum at SFCC, but it was not a "watering down" of the successful standards of yore. Frankly, the college standard from the good old days was no math at all beyond the admission requirement unless a student had a math or science major. We now require students seeking any bachelor's degree to demonstrate a basic proficiency in intermediate algebra (post-admission) and to take a college level math or quantitative-based course. The standard students are required to meet now are siginificantly higher than the standards their parents had to meet. We still teach traditional precalculus, calculus,linear algebra, multivariable calculus, differential equations, etc.
The major change to our developmental curriculum was make it a better preparation for college work. For example, we added material on ratios, proportions, similarity, basic trigonometry, unit analysis and other mathematical topics required for study in science and other related fields. Algorithmic algebra is still there; word problems, the quadratic formula, parabolas, exponentials, etc. We also require the basics in arithmetic. Students are not allowed into the algebra sequence unless they've taken a pre-algebra course or passed a proficiency standard in arithmetic, and we've raised the standard for that proficiency. Yes, we do still teach the number line, but frankly we expect that they know that before they start algebra.
With regard to pedagogy, no one was required to give up lecture and embrace an inquiry-based model. The department did decide that as a department, there would be an effort to incorporate calculators and some common strategies toward student success. Slide rules and look up tables were great in their time, but calculators are a relevant part of mathematics education now.
All of our choices were the result of years of discussion and data analysis, which is continuing through the current effort. We have and are continuing to look at student success rates in math courses, success rates in math sequences, success rates in precalculus and beyond, and success rates in the sciences. Make no mistake, even though I am a fan of the traditional curriculum (which I see as geometry, logic and algebra)the data does not support the nostalgic notion that students performed better back then. What is true is that we expected less of our students in the good old days and did not apply a universal standard to all students. As I stated, we will continue to examine data with the expection that we will keep what works, change what doesn't, and maintain a high standard of ourselves and our students. However, we will not confuse anecdotes with reality, nor will we confuse our memories of what worked in our youth with an analysis of what current students need and what supports success.

Anthony said...

First of all I would like to commend Dean Brady for his thoughtful comments. While he clearly does not agree with everything said, I believe it is great that he is able to make his point without being hostile.

I also come from a mathematics background. As an undergraduate, I was part of a selective mathematics program and was given acceptance for graduate study at 18. After earning a B.S. in mathematics and spending many years tutoring (usually for free) students from basic math to differential equations and beyond, I just finished a M.A. in teaching so that I may hopefully help fix some of the problems facing mathematics education today.

It is completely true that calculators are part of modern mathematics. However, I am concerned that educators are too lenient with their use. Some local districts have been having kids use these tools since 1st or 2nd grade. Since every answer to basic problems involved "plug it into a calculator", these children were never given the opportunity to develop a internalized sense of numbers. Thus, I see students who are seniors in pre-calculus but cannot deal with fractions because they never had to in elementary/middle school. The calculators return decimal values and not fractions. So some of these students even do not recognize fractions as numbers at all.

This is unacceptable. Too many teachers, and in some case the curriculum itself, have replaced logical thinking with procedural calculator exercises. This is a disservice to the students who are not prepared for true mathematical understanding because their minds were never developed past a "hit this button and then that" stage. Calculators should be seen as tools for learning and not the basis of learning. As students master concepts their calculator use should increase (as there is not need to show me you can add if you are doing calculus). However, we cannot let them replace the foundation of conceptual mathematics which is vital for development.

Anonymous said...

In response to Jim Brady's post: I question many of the points he makes--especially where he says, "What is true is that we expected less of our students in the good old days and did not apply a universal standard to all students." That simply does not meet with the data and experience of colleges and universities for the past 15 years. They all complain about the lack of mathematical skills with the incoming freshmen. Colleges now expect LESS from kids.

Learn to read said...

It sounds like math instruction is being politicized the same way reading has been. Schools today continue to teach reading in ways that have been disproven in every study undertaken. Due to parental demand, some phonics instruction has been added to kindergarten reading programs, but this so-called phonics amounts to just telling the kids that letters have sounds, and them asking them to memorize 100 plus words without sounding them out. The "phonics" instruction is not even part of the reading class; it's kept separate.

Anonymous said...

In response to Jim Brady: What data? ClearingHouse of What Works in Education ( found that only 6 studies out of about 300 published were methodologically solid.

BTW, this shows that the problem with math concepts is not only in the current generation of kids in high schools and colleges, but already with researchers in their mid career who cannot understand the basics of rigorous methodology such that of randomized trials. And the only reason you had to strengthen the math requirements is because high school stopped teaching math.

Anonymous said...

So, who is coming up with all these dumb ideas about teaching maths etc? Is it parents, lazy teachers, aliens from Breep? It seems to me that the dumbing down has been occurring on a world wide basis for at least twenty years. My local check-out chick could not subtract 38 from 50 after her register broke down, that is just awful.

Anonymous said...

Not a world-wide phenomenon, but definitely a USA phenomenon for the last 50+ years or so these 'progressive' beliefs about discovery learning, inquiry, constructivism, et al. have been pushed on teachers by their college education professors. In order to teach in America, teachers must first be subjected to indoctrination by professors who teach them to teach students in backwards and inefficient ways. It's so institutionalized that it's part of teacher evaluations. E. D. Hirsch traces it back to Columbia Teachers College in "The Schools We Need and Why we Don't Have Them". A great book, if you are interested in this subject.