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Originally published Wednesday, December 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM


Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Recalculating the way math is taught in Washington

"You have my solemn promise on the use of algorithms," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson. "At least one has...

"You have my solemn promise on the use of algorithms," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson. "At least one has to be one that parents recognize from their early days."

An algorithm is a way of solving a math problem. "Add the columns and carry the tens" is an algorithm. Bergeson was promising that some of the ways your child is asked to solve math problems will be recognizable to you.

She was speaking last Saturday in Tukwila to a citizen group called Where's the Math ( This King County group has risen in opposition to the "lattice method" of multiplication, the "partial products" method of division and other projects of the "fuzzy" or "reform" mathematics.

They oppose the promiscuous use of calculators, the collectivism of too much group work, the inefficiency of too much "discovery" instruction, and the chaos of mixing geometry and statistics into the early grade. They rebel at the new-age insistence that explaining a math problem with words and pictures is more important than finding the right answer.

Most of all, they object to solving math problems in ways so roundabout as to be useless. They worry that long division is a lost art.

For years, the state has been friendly to reform math. But the winds are shifting. Because of low math scores on the high-school graduation test, the state is reviewing its math standards. This year, the review resulted in the Plattner Report, which said the standards were too low and too "conceptual."

Bergeson stood by the report. "In elementary school," she said, "kids are learning some very cumbersome processes" to solve math problems. She was careful to say that some of the new algorithms are good but said also that kids should "not waste time on the useless ones."

The people from Where's the Math liked that. They liked that Bergeson is following up with new standards for what kids at each grade level are supposed to learn. They were not so happy with the preliminary draft of those standards released Dec. 4.

For example, there was this, for the seventh grade: Solve linear equations involving rational numbers using various representations, such as models, pictures and symbols.

Their reaction was: Don't say kids have to use models and pictures. That's reform math. Just say they have to learn linear equations.

Bergeson replied that the state would not insist on teaching every child three ways to solve linear equations. One way would be fine — any one way. Bergeson said she will choose three curricula for each grade — one a traditional math type (Algebra 1, Geometry 1, Algebra 2, etc.), one a reform type (Integrated 1, 2 and 3) and one a blended type.

The people from Where's the Math liked that idea, but looking at the document in front of them, they did not see it.

"That's not what the standards say," said Sammamish parent Laura Brandt.

Bergeson stressed that the standards were still in flux, and may be changed before the final draft is out Jan. 20. "I care very much about what you've presented or I wouldn't be here," she said.

The folks from Where's the Math liked the attention but were not in a trusting frame of mind. The committee writing the standards had only one person from Where's the Math on it, and then only after the group had raised a fuss.

From its inception, the group has been fighting an established order whose guardians, the university professors, compare them to anti-Dar-winists. And they are engineers and teachers — people who use math in a practical way.

"I want my child to be competitive in the global economy," said Where's the Math activist Jock Mackinlay, director of visual analysis at Tableau Software, Seattle.

This is an important fight. The state has to allow room for school districts to offer a more-traditional math curriculum where parents and teachers demand it.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is" for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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