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Originally published Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 4:51 PM

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Seattle school leaders "discover" the math book they wanted

How the Seattle School Board used a fuzzy-math method to adopt a fuzzy-math text for the Seattle Public Schools

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Seattle Public Schools has decided to stick with reform math. With the School Board's 4-3 vote May 6 for the "Discovering Algebra" and "Discovering Geometry" textbooks, the battle is finished. Reform won.

It was an odd battle. The side that lost wanted to define terms, make distinctions and fight. The side that won — the establishment's side — did not want to do any of that.

"The vote is not about which textbook I think is best," said board member Cheryl Chow, who voted to adopt the reform texts.

Here is how the rejected text, Prentice-Hall's "Geometry," introduces the concept of a chord: "A segment whose end points are on a circle is a chord." The book immediately says what a chord is, what one looks like, and what laws it follows.

The reform book doesn't tell you that. You're supposed to discover it. "Discovering Geometry" shows you segments that are chords and some that aren't. It asks you to write your own definition. Then it says, "Discuss your definitions with others in your group." The teacher is to stand back: "Ask questions to guide students," says the teacher's book, "but try to refrain from correcting the definitions yourself."

The publisher, Key Curriculum Press, calls this "learning through cooperative group activities."

You will not find axioms, theorems and proofs in "Discovering Geometry" until the last chapter. The publisher is proud of this. It says it is better for students to be shielded from abstract logic while they get a sense of geometry by looking at pictures, folding paper, measuring angles and discussing it with the group.

To opponents, this is all backward. Ted Nutting, who teaches AP calculus the traditional way at Ballard High School, recalled the year he tried a reform text. "It was a disaster," he told the School Board May 6. Nutting told them he sent his daughter to Holy Names Academy so that she could learn real math.

Opponents also argued that straightforward books were better even if math were taught in a roundabout way, because books are used at home. "Parents appreciate a clear textbook," said Cliff Mass, professor of meteorology at the University of Washington.

That argument resonates. Board member Harium Martin-Morris told me he had been baffled by his daughter's reform-math text. He voted against the reform texts, along with board members Michael DeBell and Mary Bass.

The other side, however, did not make a case for the reform text.

They argued instead that the "Discovering" books had been recommended by a committee, and that the board should respect the committee. Board member Steve Sundquist said, "I should probably not be telling educators how to teach."

They argued that textbooks aren't that important anyway. Board member Peter Maier said the books "allow a variety of teaching methods."

They argued that textbook adoption was too important to waste any more time. "How many classes are we willing to graduate while we disagree over textbooks?" said board member Sherry Carr.

So the dominant paradigm — and reform math is that — continues. Dominance has its privileges. The supporters of reform math did not have to define their terms or label themselves. They did not have to make a logical argument or show any data.

They engaged in what you might call a cooperative group activity, and led themselves to discover the books that were wanted.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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