Seattle’s Teaching of Math adds up to Much Confusion

Jessica Blanchard:

Rick Burke remembers looking at his elementary-school daughter’s math homework and wondering where the math was.
Like many Seattle schools, his daughter’s school was teaching “reform” math, a style that encourages students to discover math principles and derive formulas themselves. Burke, an engineer, worried that his daughter wasn’t learning basic math skills.
“It was a lot of drawing pictures and playing games,” he said. “Her whole first-grade year was pretty much a lateral move.”
So for the past few years, Burke and his wife have been tutoring their three children after school — and this fall, they plan to switch them to North Beach Elementary, which uses a more traditional approach to math.

Sarah Natividad adds:

The biggest problem is that the teachers currently in service never learned enough math to begin with, and so can’t be expected to teach what they don’t already know. We only think our teachers know math because they know just as little math as we do. If you want to know how scarily ignorant of math our teachers are, I suggest reading Liping Ma’s Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics for a start.
I’ve written about this on my own blog, and I’m not just talking out of my butt here. I’ve taught math to these potential teachers. They lack the prerequisite skills to pass a college algebra class. You can tell who in the class is in the Elementary Education program; they’re the ones sitting in the back row, getting a D on every exam because they have to use a calculator to do three times two (and they think this is normal). So when Bob Brandt of Bellevue says “How do you know three times two equals six? Any idiot knows that,” I would counter that an exceptional idiot must be teaching his kids math. We’ve raised an entire generation of teachers who don’t even know enough about math to know that they are ignorant of it.

D-Ed Reckoning touches on math as well.

5 thoughts on “Seattle’s Teaching of Math adds up to Much Confusion”

  1. Engineers understand that if you don’t get the math exactly right, bridges fall down. Having a warm feeling about math doesn’t translate to accuracy.
    I keep returning to the question–who wasn’t learning math the traditional way and how many of our students did that amount to? Because it’s my understanding that most kids did fine but because some did not, we’ve turned our entire math curricula on their heads to the detriment of us all.

  2. Maybe the solution is to get our kids labelled. We could petition the psychologists to add a new learning disability to their official list. We’ll call it ‘Primarily Logical/Mathematical Learners Disorder.’ Then since we would have protection under the ADA, we could pressure MMSD to offer classes/curriculum suitable to our children’s learning difficulties, i.e., old fuddy-duddy traditional stuff. Goodness knows, this constructivist nonsense drives my kids (and me) to distraction.
    But they wouldn’t let us out of those classes without a fight. They need our kids to make it work. This becomes so clear when you read the numerous papers on MMSD website. For example, one by a biology teacher at West about transitioning to the heterogeneous discovery-style 9th grade biology that almost all students now take. The teacher divides the class into 4 groups, high, medium-high, meduim-low, and low. Then when slecting groups for labs he chooses one child from each group to make up a 4-person lab group. The same thing goes on in the group-oriented discovery math. Our kids are needed to help teach the other kids. We should want our kids to do this for social justice reasons. But it’s a pretty heavy burden for them to bear. A little bit of that is OK, but all day every day is too much, especially when the %age who need this help is growing and growing. If it were 10-15% it wouldn’t be an unpleasant duty. But as the numbers creep towards 50%, the strain of the weight of it is just too much.Can it truly be my children’s job to spend their days teaching other children? I thought that was the school system/taxpayer’s job. They have so much to learn themselves. It’s like being chained. When can my daughter look forward to sharing a lab group with her friends, in math/physics perhaps? But the research apparently shows that this model, discovery style with help from high-achieving students, is one that works with the low achievers. No one seems to know of any other way to help them. So until another way is found, the district will resist any efforts to return to offerings of traditional classes for TAG kids.
    The way in which reform math people try to draw the dichotomy between traditional and reform math is completely fallacious. I certainly know how to estimate, check my work, do problems by half-a-dozen different methods. I know how to model expansion of quadratics by area of rectangle model and how to illustrate the meaning of multiplication and division of fractions. And I didn’t have any of this constructivist stuff. Taught properly, traditional math is all of those things, as well as plenty of practice drills to make computation rote. The real difference is that discovery math has kids take 5 days to discover what could be explained in 10 minutes. Then the actual formulas, proofs and theories are intentionally not presented in any clear form (too scary) and no time is left to work on any hard problems. The ‘reform math’ example problem in this article is an ordinary math puzzle which would fit perfectly well as a extra-time-seatwork problem in any traditional math class. It doesn’t at all give a picture of what discovery math is really like.
    Now I know that David is thinking ‘just leave and quit your complaining you amoral monster.’ I know the district and advocates for disabled and minorities would much rather we leave than stay and stir the pot. I’m going. I’m going. But there wasn’t a mid-year opening, so I have to wait until September. You should try to understand, though, that your kids are not the only kids. I know their problems consume you, but our kids also have value and don’t deserve to be shunted aside this way. They aren’t all the resilient tigers you imagine they ought to be. They don’t exist solely to serve you.

  3. I have so much respect for you, Celeste, for the clarity of your thinking and writing, for your courage and obvious intelligence, but especially for your devotion to kids.
    I wish our family had left MMSD permanently before we all got so terribly jaded and worn down. (I’m sure the district would have been thrilled to see us leave so long as we keep paying our taxes!)
    You are not likely to win this fight, not unless alot, and I mean alot, of other families join you; I don’t see that happening anytime soon particularly with Silveira’s stated positions on heterogeneity.
    Please don’t feel like you have to sacrifice your child’s happiness or joyful learning because of the occasional guilt-tripper who posts here, especially those who will try to cast your decision as elitist or racist for leaving. Because with their triage mentality, they don’t really care about your family–as far as they’re concerned, your child already has more than most, “excessively-abled” and supported at home. As I keep posting, the fallacy in that thinking is MMSD will transform into Milwaukee if enough families like yours leave.
    More and more I’m reminded of Monty Python’s Dennis Moore skit, especially reading your description of biology at West. Paraphrasing: Damn this redistribution of wealth business (here, redistribution of talent and family support) is alot more difficult than it looks.

  4. Actually it is already happening. Schools like Edgewood and Eagle have waiting lists in many of it’s grades. My understanding this is why Eagle built it’s school 6 years ago, because people where knocking on it’s doors. Edgewood High School has had two years of high enrollments also. A lot of people are leaving whether going to private schools or moving, sometimes others are moving in blinded by the promises. I have also heard many West families moving to the Memorial area. It will be interesting to see how many NMSF West will have with the upcoming classes, starting with the current Freshman class who will be going through the new English program, and some with the Core Plus program. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing the numbers at West going downward.
    We left MMSD for the same reasons that Celeste’s family is leaving 4 years ago. MMSD didn’t work for my kids, but I still feel strongly that everyone (including TAG) have a right to learn every year at their levels which is why I still keep abreast on blogs like this. I have friends who’s children are still suffering so I can’t give up the fight.

  5. Joan and Celeste,
    I completely agree with your viewpoints. This district will be a Milwaukee in the next decade if something is not done. And that is a bad thing, irregardless of the politically correct guilt trippers who may think otherwise.
    The irony about the MMSD’s viewpoint on heterogenous classes is that, in ten years or so, certain schools in the district will be clamoring to have honors/advanced sections in the academic subject areas. If many middle class families leave the MMSD, then schools will have only the poorest and neediest students. There will be no “heterogenity” at all!
    I have no problems against poor people. I was one myself. But from my experience, knowledge, and observations, schools with high numbers/concentrations of poor students get the shortshrift and often complain that they don’t have honors or AP classes. Instead, they have the remanants of what were supposed to be heterogeous course offerings. That is, watered down curriculum taught to classes of 30 to 35 low-achieving students per section. This happens at every “inner-city” urban school district eventually. Madison is just beginning to experience this trend. Memorial may be the exception, but it is also having its own problems with students from poverty backgrounds.
    Now, I pose this scenario: Madison is a capital city. It attracts the best and brightest from the state for positions in government, business, and university studies/work. How can MMSD graduates (possibly a majority being students of color) compete for 21st century jobs with the rate that things are going for the district? 40% of the populace in Madison are college graduates. Some Ph.D.’s even drive cabs for a living, due to high competiton for jobs in their respective markets. How is that going to work?
    If you want to be a player in the “game”, you must play by the “rules”. By teaching students “alternative” means of doing things that have been tried and true for hundreds of years, we take a lot of potential players out of the game before it even begins.

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