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Originally published May 29, 2009 at 2:53 PM | Page modified May 29, 2009 at 4:28 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle Schools' "Discovering Math" curriculum risks a generation of students

Seattle Public Schools appears headed toward an instructional approach to teaching math that has failed, writes Cliff Mass, a University of Washington professor of meteorology. The district should reverse course and follow the state Board of Education's clearer direction.

Special to The Times

ON May 6, the Seattle School Board voted on the purchase of high-school math textbooks, and the results were both disappointing and tragic.

In a 4-3vote, the board adopted the Discovering Math series: "discovery-based" math texts that were found to be mathematically unsound by mathematicians working for the state Board of Education. As noted by Professor Jack Lee of the University of Washington, "definitions, computational algorithms, and formulas seem to be stated vaguely when they are stated at all."

These books are "discovery-based" or "reform" math texts in which discussion, group projects, manipulation of objects, use of calculators and inefficient "exploration" replace students acquiring of key skills, solving real-world problems and developing a strong mathematical foundation. At the core of this math series is the theory that unless students "discover" math facts themselves, they are unable to master and apply them effectively.

The damage from "Discovering Math" is multiplied by Seattle's previous selections of similarly weak "discovery" curricula in elementary ("Everyday Math") and middle school (CMP2). During the roughly 10 years the Seattle Public Schools has used discovery-based math texts, the achievement gap for disadvantaged students has widened.

The Washington Assessment of Student Learning pass rate for low-income students has declined over the past three years, never exceeding 32 percent. In fourth grade, the highest pass rate of African-American students has not exceeded 37 percent over the past 10 years and has declined over the past four years. The pass rate for fourth-grade Hispanic students reached a peak of 44 percent five years ago. The School Board agreed to supplement elementary-school math with the excellent Singapore math series, but the books have not made their way into the hands of Seattle students.

As a result of these three poor math adoptions, it will be nearly impossible for Seattle students to get the kind of mathematics training necessary to compete in a technical world. How could the board make such an extraordinary error? Not once but three times?

Furthermore, it was well known to the board that the Discovering Math series was found to be unsound, and that the San Diego School District had decided to remove these books at considerable cost. Three of seven Seattle School Board members were paying attention — Michael DeBell, Harium Martin-Morris and Mary Bass voted against Discovering Math. But the rest were unwilling to look at the books' substance, explaining their responsibilities were limited to ensuring that due process was completed.

In fact, the process of book selection was itself flawed: The applications for curriculum committee members did not inquire into candidates' math backgrounds, and no mathematicians or community members in mathematical careers were selected (although one University of Washington math faculty member with children in the Seattle schools did apply but was rejected). Almost all committee members were Seattle school district employees. The chair of the committee did not have a degree in math or a technical subject.

A key factor for some School Board members was the good "alignment" of the Discovery books with the state's new math standards. But this alignment ensures only a general match of topics, not quality. The second choice of the Seattle committee (a Prentice Hall curriculum) is quite excellent, but its "alignment" was judged slightly lower due to the addition of extraneous topics in the new state math standards.

There are deeper and more disturbing reasons why world-class, "mastery-based" math curricula are not being selected by Seattle and some other districts: the influence of schools of education. Discovery-based learning is the accepted paradigm in most education colleges, not because of a substantive body of real research proving that it works, but rather due to religious-like acceptance that such an approach has to be better and more socially beneficial. Even a casual review of the supposed supporting research reveals poorly conceived studies, and a comprehensive study by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences found no evidence of the superiority of discovery-based math books.

The fact that discovery-based texts have failed to improve student learning has generally been blamed on deficient teaching, with expensive professional development pushed as the necessary solution. The fact that Discovery Math books are nearly impossible for both students and parents to use on their own is considered an unfortunate but unavoidable hurdle. The impact of education-school policies is long-lasting and in this case pernicious, since they are training the next generation of teachers and administrators to support a failed doctrine.

The tide of education is now turning and the new state math standards, although imperfect, show a clear direction away from discovery learning toward ensuring students have the skills to compete in an increasingly mathematical world. It is tragic that at this point of transition, Seattle Public Schools is turning backward toward an approach that has failed in the past, and that will leave Seattle students at a severe disadvantage in a highly competitive environment.

Eventually, at great expense, the Discovering Math series will be dropped, but an entire generation of students may be lost.

Cliff Mass is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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