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Wednesday, August 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM



Why do teens fail math? "It ain't the kids"

Times Snohomish County Bureau

High-quality teachers are the key to improving students' math skills, according to a leading educator who was in Everett last week for a conference of middle-school math teachers.

The conference came as state officials scrambled for answers to the poor showing in math by Washington 10th-graders on the spring Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the state's high-stakes test that will become a graduation requirement with the class of 2008.

Forty-six percent of sophomores, or about 33,000 students across the state, failed to meet standards in math, prompting Washington's superintendent of public instruction, Terry Bergeson, to call for a changed approach to math instruction.

At the conference, Lee Stiff, a professor of mathematics education at North Carolina State University and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said efforts should be stepped up to provide more and better training for teachers, and incentives for skilled teachers to work with the neediest students.

"It ain't the kids," Stiff said repeatedly during his talk in the Everett High School auditorium, arguing that all students can learn if teachers are skilled, teach material in a variety of ways and have high expectations of their students.

Stiff drew on his background as the son of a Southern factory worker with only a third-grade education. He said that if teachers had concluded he couldn't learn because of his parents' limited schooling, he would never have had the confidence to pursue mathematics in college and earn a doctorate in mathematics education.

What it takes

Lee Stiff, a professor of mathematics education at North Carolina State University, says effective mathematics teachers:

• Express their positive expectations of all students.

• Become better teachers by learning more.

• Create environments for all students to succeed.

• Care about every student — even when students don't care about them.

• Are role models for students.

• Can teach in a variety of ways.

"I hear from teachers: 'The parents this, the parents that.' But school can be a place where good things happen regardless of a kid's circumstances," Stiff said.

He said many of his recommendations for improving math instruction were laid out in the Glenn Commission report in 2000. Chaired by former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the commission recommended recruiting more math and science teachers, improving the training and support for current teachers, and making the profession more attractive to math and science graduates.

Those recommendations haven't been acted on, Stiff said, because of the price tag — an estimated $5 billion a year.

A proposal to create scholarships for Washington college students who agree to teach math or science in public schools died in this year's legislative session.

Stiff said his home state of North Carolina provides four-year, $20,000-a-year scholarships to college students who pledge to teach math or science in public schools for five years. He said incentives are necessary because people with math and science degrees and good interpersonal skills are snatched up by technology firms paying higher salaries.

Local teachers at the math conference, which was organized by the Everett School District, said high-quality training was crucial to their work and to the task of raising students' math skills.

Sarah Grim, a math teacher at Voyager Middle School in the Mukilteo School District, said it has taken her several years to master the connected mathematics curriculum or integrated math that has replaced the traditional algebra, geometry, algebra sequence in many of the region's middle and high schools.

"To be truly effective at teaching, it takes five to seven years. It's like learning a foreign language," Grim said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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