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Originally published October 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 12, 2008 at 12:30 AM

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Guest columnist

A formula for lifting Washington out of its math mess

"Reform" math, which Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson supports, is a failure, says a Ballard High math instructor.

Special to The Times

I'm a high-school math teacher in Seattle. When I hear Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, say that this state is "at the bottom in the production of scientists and engineers," and warn that our graduates "will be washing the cars for the people who come here for the best jobs," I know what the problem is. It's math. We are failing to educate our children in mathematics. I know how that came about, and what we can do about it.

The problem is national in scope, but in Washington state our difficulties can be traced principally to Terry Bergeson, superintendent of public instruction for the past 12 years. She oversaw the writing of our state's weak, vague math standards, basing them on a "reform" idea to promote "discovery" learning. This has turned teachers into "facilitators" who "guide" children in learning activities. It has promoted "differentiated instruction," placing students of wildly differing abilities together where some students cannot do the required work, often to the detriment of those who can.

She has moved away from rigorous testing. The "reform" math she champions encourages such things as journals, portfolios and group projects that tend to form large parts of classroom grading systems, while test results are relegated to a lesser role. The math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), aligned to her faulty standards, tests math skills at a low level. Even so, about half our 10th-graders fail it.

She has wasted millions of dollars on "professional development" to encourage teachers to put "reform" theo-ries into practice. These theories are supposed to make it possible for all students to learn math. But few students know significant mathematics, and most know very little. About half of our students entering college now have to take remedial math. Many of our students who do succeed use private tutors, and the racial achievement gaps have widened. "Reform's" emphasis on equity and fairness has been revealed to be empty talk.

My experience tells me that we can fix this, and quickly. I am the Advanced Placement calculus teacher at Ballard High School. I don't teach Bergeson-style. I tell my students what they need to know, they do problems to understand how it works, and they demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through testing. Up until this year, we've insisted that our students who take AP calculus actually be able to do the work.

We at Ballard have by far the best AP calculus program in Seattle Public Schools, based on AP test scores. I have no special magnetism or charisma; I'm not a cult figure for teenagers. I have high standards and I require the students to work. If they don't work, they know they will probably flunk. But they do work, and I am proud of them. I also have the benefit of having an older textbook that doesn't fit the "reform math" model, and most of my students have had an excellent pre-calculus teacher the year before.

In most of our other math classes (and I doubt that Ballard is unique in this), we've tended to follow a "reform" model. We've passed students on from class to class; there is no meaningful threshold they must cross to enter a more-difficult class. Since we find that many students in our classes cannot do the work, we dumb down the courses. We say we are admitting unprepared students into our classes in order to "challenge" them.

But students should be challenged in the classes that they are qualified to take, not sent on to classes where they cannot do the work. Unfortunately, things are changing, even in our school's AP calculus classes: We're starting to admit unqualified students, and our program will soon begin to deteriorate.

It's not just Ballard's AP calculus program that is successful, and it's not just the top students. North Beach Elementary in Seattle switched its math curriculum to Saxon Math in 2001. This excellent series teaches real math and does not follow Bergeson's fuzzy, reform-oriented ideology. North Beach did this with reluctant agreement from Seattle Public Schools because the PTA paid for the books and because the superintendent supported site-based decision-making. North Beach's passing rate on the WASL rose from 68 percent in 2000 to 94 percent in 2004 — and yet, every year parents worry that real math will be scrapped. Recently, the school has had to seek waivers to avoid having to teach the district's "reform" math.

Legislators have begun to understand the problem. At the Legislature's direction in 2007, the state Board of Education reviewed our state's math standards, finding they were failing. The Legislature set up a system to fix the problems, but that system gave Bergeson the opportunity to sabotage the process. She stacked the committees selected to rewrite the standards with like-minded ideologues. The results were so bad the Legislature refused to accept the rewritten standards, sending them to the Board of Education to fix.

Bergeson then stacked the committees set up to select curricula for state approval. That process is not complete, but the first results are discour-aging. The Legislature had required that the new mathematics standards be based on (among other things) the standards of Singapore, consistently a leader on international tests, but Bergeson's initial submission of texts ranked Singapore Math, that country's official curriculum (and a superior one), dead last out of 12.

Most school-district administrations have gone along with Bergeson and share responsibility for this mess. Even as an uproar arose nationally against the programs Bergeson promotes, Seattle started using two of them in elementary and middle schools.

None of this is necessary. Students can learn math. My students learn it. If our education leaders would follow the lead of our Legislature, stop ignoring obvious successes and support what actually works, we would see major improvements in just a few years.

Ted Nutting is the Advanced Placement calculus teacher at Ballard High School in Seattle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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