Now is the Time to Fix the Math Meltdown in Seattle Public Schools

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A few days ago the Seattle Times ran another story on the math problems in Seattle, noting that about 70% of the students entered Seattle community colleges require math remediation.
Now these are college-bound students that are unprepared...what about those that don't go to college or who drop out?  I bet their math skills are no better. Or a lot worse.

So we have a real disaster on our hands here in Seattle, and both students and parents in the district should be concerned.  I mean very concerned.

Now the article goes on to talk about a grant from the Gates foundation in which Seattle students were able to to rapidly advance to readiness for college-level classes after they were given an intense course in the basics they never learned or forgot.  

Yep...they needed to be taught how to do very basic stuff:  fractions, percentages, orders of operations.  Key skills they never learned in elementary and middle school.  I even see these gaps in students entering the UW (I have given a math pretest in Atmospheric Sciences 101).  We are not even talking about algebra, which requires knowledge of these basic operations.

Folks, this situation is disgraceful and needs to be fixed immediately...and we have a good idea of why it is happening and how to improve the situation immensely.
As I have noted in earlier blogs, the Seattle Public Schools has maintained the trifecta of terrible math curricula that use the discovery approach to instruction, while minimizing basic skills.

We are talking about  Everyday Math in elementary, Connected Math for middle schools, Discovering Math in the high schools.  These books do not encourage mastery of the key mathematical skills.  They push group work, essays about math, heavy calculator use, and spend inordinate time on extraneous topics (such as fractals and projections).

We KNOW this curriculum is a big part of the problem for a number of reasons.  For example, they don't contain a lot of crucial can't learn what you aren't taught.  And when a limited number of Seattle schools were able to use good math books (Singapore or Saxon) their math scores soared.   You may have heard about Mercer Middle School--where rising math scores occurred quickly when they dropped the poor discovery texts (see story in the Seattle Times).   I can give you several other examples of this effect, such as North Beach elementary when the switched to Saxon.

Mercer Middle School students did far better after discovery math was replaced
 So there can be a rapid and significant improvement in math performance in Seattle Public Schools by switching math curriculum.  Some of the students have been so crippled by the poor curriculum of the past that they will need help to catch up...but we need to

The time for excuses are over and changes in the district make a new beginning possible.

First, Superintendent susan Enfield is leaving...a huge relief.  As Chief Academic Officer and as acting Superintendent she supported and defended discovery math curricula and worked against letting individual schools test other approaches.   I really worry what is going to happen in Highline.

Next, our new Superintendent, Jose Banda, supported good math curricula in the Anaheim public schools, and seems like an individual that listens and makes rational decisions.
Jose Banda, the new Seattle Super
Third, after last November's election there is probably a majority of the Seattle school board that would support fixing the math debacle.

Fourth, there is now huge body of evidence that the current math curricula is a disaster and that bringing in better books (e.g, Singapore, Saxon) would have huge benefits.

Fifth, the district's overall curriculum director and math/science lead have resigned. They have not been helpful--I met with them and came away disappointed.

And there are more reasons for optimism:  new approaches to computer learning promise powerful tools for giving students intensive practice in basic math skills.

 Now there are going to some of the old guard that want to maintain the status quo:

(1) The discovery math fanatics who still support it, even after its universal failures, because they believe it is better for the underprivileged (the opposite is true by the way) and for other equally irrational reasons.  Schools of education are full of these confused folks, especially the UW College of Education.

(2)  The "corporate" education folks (Seattle Times--particularly Editorial writer Lynn Varner, League of Education Voters, Alliance for Education, Gates Foundation, Cross Cut, etc) who believe that charter schools are the answer, or in breaking the "power" of teacher's unions, or in using Teach for America minimally trained (few weeks) student teachers.  In fact, most of this group is on the dole of the Gates Foundation, which has played a very unhealthy and undemocratic role in all of this.  Ignore them..they have no idea what they are talking about and often have other agendas. The tragedy is that many of these groups mean well, but are doing substantial harm to the kids they mean to help.

And some of the status quo types will say there is no money for books.  Nonsense.  Many parents will be pleased to buy a book for their kids to salvage their education.  The district has some money put aside for new books.  Many of us are willing to help finance the change.   And ask the deep-pocketed Gates Foundation, an organization that just spent 3 million dollars on remediation according to the article cited above.  Better new books than paying for endless remediation to fix the damage the old books caused.

Don't get me wrong, although we can make major progress with a curriculum change there will still be issues.  Undertrained teachers (also fixable), the effects of poverty and family dysfunction (much harder), and district bureaucratic intransigence and red tape.

Bottom line:  The poor math education we have given Seattle School District students is disgraceful.  By leaving it in place we have prevented many district students from pursuing technical or vocational careers (yes, carpenters need to know fractions).  We can make huge improvements with the simple act of changing the curriculum.  New district leadership can allow a new direction.

 Isn't it FINALLY time to fix this?  If you are a parent of a Seattle district student, you should talk to your principal and school board member.  Bring it up at PTA meetings.  If they tell you that they know better, keep pushing. They don't.

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