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Originally published Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Discovery-based math makes a difference in performance of U.S. students

Discovery-based math, although often criticized, has produced some encouraging results, writes guest columnist Michael Sparks. The critics have not fully understood or appreciated the value, qualities and outcomes of programs like Seattle's Connected Math2 when done well.

Special to The Times

YOU would never imagine, given the endless stream of op-ed pieces denouncing so-called "reform math," that there might be another side to the story. You would never imagine that these new math programs had some sort of historical context to them. It might be good then to pause a moment and ask: Where did these programs come from? And why?

Seattle Public Schools' current middle-school math program, Connected Math2, is one among several curricula that emerged in the mid-1990s in response to a perceived mathematics gap. Spurred into action by the Third World-level performance of our students in the 1995 Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), the U.S. education community produced new standards, curricula and teacher-training programs modeled upon the national systems that had so thoroughly embarrassed us.

Fourteen years later, as Cliff Mass acknowledged in these pages ["Seattle's shortsighted math curriculum," May 31]: "Discovery-based learning is the accepted paradigm in most education colleges ... "

For the moment, let's forget all that "fuzzy" talk about collaboration, creativity, flexibility and depth of understanding that raises the dander of some. Let's cut to the heart of the matter. Can these reform programs deliver the traditional math goods?

The 2007 TIMSS (renamed the Trends in International Math and Science Study) has now been released. This survey, based in one part upon a very long, comprehensive mathematics test, has been given to a random sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in countries around the globe every four years since 1995.

Unlike our Washington Assessment of Student Learning, there is no way for school systems to teach to the test because no one knows which small sample of students will be chosen; it is also rewritten every four years and outsiders alone administer it. No smoke, no mirrors, no subterfuge and, above all, no Campbell's Law (or test-learning curve) in effect. We have no better way of comparing national mathematical performance over time. And what do the results tell us?

In 1995, before the emergence of the new "dominant paradigm" in American mathematical education, our eighth-graders placed 28th among 41 nations. And 12 years later down the road of reform? How goes it? Although we have now shot up — exponentially, by any stretch of the imagination — to secure ninth place out of 45 nations tested, in real statistical terms only five countries scored significantly higher than the US: Chinese Taipei, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR and Japan.

All told, we have now matched or exceeded the standardized-testing performances of the Dutch and other European countries upon whose systems our new approach is based. And we have done so in the face of deep social inequalities (and some testing disparities) that do not hamper many of our European counterparts.

No doubt, efforts are now under way in certain quarters to explain away the significance of these test scores, but there is no fudging the data itself. Although a yawning gap remains between us and four or so of these Asian juggernauts, this seemingly intimidating gulf is better explained by equally wide social and cultural differences than by curricular tendencies.

The critics of the dominant paradigm raise many worthwhile instructional concerns. Their points are well taken and pondered by us teachers, though they may seem to fall at times upon deaf, defensive ears. All things considered, however, the critics have failed to fully engage, discern, understand and appreciate the value and marvelous qualities and outcomes of programs like Connected Math2 when done well.

However one views the performance of the Seattle school district in these matters, the CM2 program itself, for all its imperfections, is of a world-class lineage and quality.

Michael Sparks has taught math and science for seven years at McClure Middle School in Seattle. He is moving to Madrona K-8 in the fall.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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