MATH IS HARD But Seattles math wars are harder.
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  • MATH IS HARD But Seattle math wars are harder.

In a major victory for Seattle students, the district’s school board voted earlier this month to adopt a world-class elementary school math curriculum, Math in Focus. Replacing the failing Everyday Math, which is based on group work and self-discovery, Math in Focus is the Americanized version of the celebrated Singapore math approach, which has proven itself both internationally and regionally. Poor math curriculum has crippled the aspirations of a generation of Seattle students, and the acquisition of Math in Focus will enable current and future students to have a future in an increasingly technical society.

The decision to adopt Math in Focus was not without some controversy, and the battle for better math in Seattle (and around the country) reveals weaknesses in the education “industry,” the negative impacts of foundations and moneyed interests, and the often inadequate coverage by mainline media.

American education has always been plagued by fads. Be it the "new math," whole-language reading, the "open classroom," small high schools, and most recently, Common Core standards. The education industry and particularly colleges of education have generally not used scientific methods of empirical testing and rigorous statistical evaluation in their "research," a situation noted in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences. During the mid-1990s, a new fad hit math education: discovery or constructivist math instruction. In this approach, teaching of proven algorithms and practice to mastery were downplayed, while group interactions, use of calculators, and student “discovery” of their own algorithms were stressed. Supposedly, this alternative approach would lead to "deeper understanding" of mathematics; unfortunately, the opposite occurred.

In Seattle, the district adopted a series of discovery math texts as well as the pedagogy associated with them. In this selection, the UW College of Education was both a cheer leader and an active partner, garnering grants from local foundations. At the elementary school level, such discovery textbooks included TERC and Everyday Math, the latter being acquired by Seattle in 2007, while in middle school, the Connected Math Program (CMP) was adopted. Seattle was not alone in this shift, with many Washington school districts doing the same.

It was not long before the damaging effects of the new curricula became evident.

Students, with rapidly declining math skills, had increasing difficulty moving into more challenging high school math classes, and colleges around the state noted huge increases in the need for remediation of incoming students. College faculty, such as myself, had to "dumb down" our classes as the mathematical and analytical skills of incoming students declined. Parents could not make sense of their children’s homework and employers began complaining about the inability of new employees to do basic calculations. Local math tutoring companies flourished as desperate parents tried to salvage their children's future. And language-heavy discovery math books proved to be a burden for students with poor English skills.

In response to these problems a variety of local math advocacy groups formed, such as Wheresthemath and the Seattle Math Coalition, and improved math education became a hot issue in local school board races. Major districts around the state, including Bellevue, North Shore, and Shoreline, concerned about declining student math skills, dropped Everyday Math and its ilk, moving to more traditional texts that stressed direct instruction of proven algorithms and practice to mastery. Seattle lagged in this transition for several reasons, including the influence of the UW College of Education; the naive support of the Seattle Times for discovery math; the role of rich individuals, several from high-tech industries; and foundations who bought the discovery mantra of “understanding mathematics” without realizing they were undermining their own interests in a mathematically literate population. The bloated Seattle School District bureaucracy included curriculum "specialists"—most without any mathematical and technical backgrounds—who were active supporters of discovery mathematics, partly out of ignorance and partly due to the UW College of Education’s role as cheerleader for that approach.

But slowly, and opposed by the Seattle Times, the Seattle School Board evolved, with problematic school board members being replaced with individuals who both cared about math education and were willing to spend the time to truly understand the situation: Sharon Peaslee, Marty McClaren, Betty Patu, and Sue Peters. Under pressure from a new school board majority, the district’s administration finally moved for the evaluation and adoption of a new elementary math curriculum. But, in doing so it became clear that district curriculum bureaucrats still had a bias towards discovery math, selecting like-minded individuals for a curriculum advisory committee. This necessitated an intervention by the board for the inclusion of a few individuals with broader views. Furthermore, the process was weakened by the committee’s inadequate public outreach, its dismissal of input from the public, and a lack of fidelity to the criteria defined by the school board. The advisory committee provided three finalists to the school board—enVision, Go Math, and Math in Focus—with enVision being their primary choice.

Earlier this month, the school board, based on considerable research and public input, decided on Math in Focus. Not only is this curriculum used in several countries whose students are world leaders in international math tests (like Singapore), but evaluations of the curriculum in Seattle Schools (like Schmitz Park Elementary) produced extraordinarily positive results.

But now the disturbing part. Elements of the Seattle School District administration attempted a rear-guard action, exaggerating the costs of Math in Focus (repeated by the Seattle Times in their story last week) and beginning to organize an illicit group waiver. Fortunately, Superintendent Jose Banda would have nothing of this and stated clearly that all Seattle elementary schools will adopt Math in Focus this fall.

And thus, after more than a decade of using a failing math curriculum in its elementary schools, the Seattle School District will adopt one of the best. But the struggle for a better math education for all Seattle students is not over. Poor middle school math books must be replaced, followed by removing the mediocre “Discovering Math” curriculum in high school. More teachers, particularly at the elementary school level, must possess stronger math backgrounds. Colleges of Education, like the UW, must inform their instruction and advocacy by information based on empirical demonstration of improved outcomes, rather than the latest education fad or their hope for social engineering. But today, we can celebrate a major advance, and Seattle’s children and society in general are far better for it.

When he's not obsessing over math curricula, Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, teaches weather analysis and forecasting, acts as his department's undergraduate adviser, and does research on numerical weather prediction, terrain effects on weather, and regional climate prediction.