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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Spokane math teacher offers suggestions for improving math instruction

Note from Laurie Rogers: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nowhere is this more true than in Spokane Public Schools. Recent School District decisions have included:

** putting loaded handguns in the schools (in the hands of District employees, no less). There's no telling what this will do to the District's budget or to insurance rates, since The Spokesman-Review reporter apparently didn't ask. This is an unfunded mandate the District has given to itself;

** implementing a new "T-2-4" program, which theoretically will prepare students for trades or for college (Not to be negative, but isn't this what the District was supposed to be doing all along?);

** placing all kindergartners, ready or not, into all-day kindergarten (thus stuffing those cute little money-makers into the failed public system even sooner);

** providing all students with their own school district email address, which will not be accessible to parents (thus removing the children - and the District curriculum - even farther from parents);

** and setting up the District for charter schools (even though it's yet to be shown that this District's school board actually knows how to run an academically effective school system).

To the best of my knowledge, however -- what the District has NOT recently decided to do is buy an effective K-8 math program for students and teachers. It also hasn't told the community the truth about the K-8 math program it has now.

It's hard to believe, folks, but Spokane Public Schools is going into yet another year with two of the worst math programs on the planet: Investigations in Number, Data, and Space; and Connected Mathematics. These programs have been heavily criticized across this country for decades, and proof of their abject failure is all around. Some in District and City leadership have quietly taken steps to fill in the gaps the programs have left in their own children.

Last September, the superintendent told me she understands the math problem in Spokane, and she promised to fix it. Some $250,000 in salary later --- K-8 students in the District are left to swing in math for yet another year while the adults in charge of providing them with math skills are busy with other things.

And so, I'm reprinting, with his permission, a fantastic article written in June 2013 by Spokane high school math teacher George Brown. It was first published in The Spokesman-Review in June.


By George K. Brown

Once again Washington state is changing math standards and end-of-course exams. Fifteen years of such changes have produced nothing. I teach mathematics courses at Lewis and Clark High School. Since 1987, I have taught Business Math, Applied Math, Algebra I and II, Geometry, Trigonometry and Pre-calculus. I’m not the best, but I am pretty good at what I do. I still love teaching mathematics to children.

For 10 years or more, the pass rate on Washington state tests of mathematics has been unacceptable. The number of kids requiring private tutoring for high school math classes and remedial mathematics classes in college is also unacceptable. This is a national problem and it has been written about extensively for years. On international tests of mathematics, the United States ranks near the bottom of industrialized nations, and this is without dispute.

Most of my current students are extremely poor in basic arithmetic skills. They cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide with any accuracy or confidence without the use of a calculator. They have virtually no competence or fluency with fractions, decimals or percents. This deficiency has been worsening over the past eight to 10 years. In 2008, Washington State Standards required such proficiency. I have yet to see it. If a student is not fluent in arithmetic, then algebra will represent a serious hurdle. If a student is not fluent in algebra, then a firm grasp of calculus will be impossible. College-level mathematics is out of reach for many, if not most, of my students.

In my opinion, we need to implement some common sense changes. Here’s a list of starters:

1) Children should arrive at high school fluent in basic arithmetic and some simple algebra. For this to happen they must be taught to add, subtract, multiply and divide whole numbers, and to compute with fractions, decimals and percents. Proficiency must be developed through much practice.

2) Eliminate the use of calculators for kids learning arithmetic and algebra. It is neither necessary nor helpful. Calculators have their place, but not in the mastering of basic skills.

3) Enforce a strong attendance policy. It is not uncommon for a student to miss 10, 20 or even 30 class periods of instruction. What good are standards when we don’t require attendance? A student must know that excessive absences (more than 10 percent) will result in loss of credit. This is, after all, compulsory education.

4) Stop placing students in math classes for which they are not qualified. For example, students who fail algebra must repeat algebra. They should not be placed in geometry. This practice is not only counterintuitive, it is counterproductive.

5) Establish a rigorous and challenging applied math track at high school that teaches mathematics for business, construction, electricity, plumbing, mechanics and other trades. We desperately need an alternative to college prep math that counts toward graduation.

6) Establish a rigorous and challenging college prep math track, including algebra with some geometry, advanced algebra with trigonometry, pre-calculus and calculus. The geometry course we currently teach is nonessential to the study of advanced algebra and calculus. Remove it.

7) Don’t raise the math requirements for high school graduation. Student interest cannot be mandated and without it little or no learning takes place. This practice has not produced better-prepared math students. Higher-level analytical mathematics classes should be available as electives for those who choose them and who are academically qualified to participate in them.

8) Allow teachers to use district-purchased textbooks as written, without interference from folks who confuse having data with knowing students.

9) End state and federal meddling in local schools. The ever-changing obstacle course of requirements, regulations and testing is destroying the education of our children.

I expect that with the arrival of a new set of standards and new state end-of-course exams, we will fight anew the battles of curriculum and methodology and continue to ignore the need for attendance, interest and competency on the part of the learner. While the children are poorly prepared for postsecondary education, we continue to fight to the death over which book to use or how to use the books we have.

This is a shame and a tragedy. At the end of the day, the children are the real casualties.

George K. Brown is a math instructor at Lewis and Clark High School.

Comment from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. 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.