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Recalculating Math 

by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & A new report could shake up Washington's state math standards, and some parents can't wait & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & & lt;/span & When Linda Plattner left her job teaching middle school math in Moses Lake in the mid-1990s, she also left a legacy of helping the state create its new Essential Academic Learning Requirements and Grade Level Expectations -- known in the education biz as EALRs and GLEs, the backbone of today's educational system.





"We had great standards back then, among the best in the country," she remembers. The standards guided school districts as they prepared students for the state achievement test -- the WASL. "But now those standards need to be strengthened and clarified," says Plattner.





She's speaking specifically about math standards. The percentages of students who pass the math section of the WASL are increasing slowly, if at all -- roughly half of the state's 6th through 10th graders in 2005-06. The percentages range from 56 percent to 64 percent for 3rd through 5th graders. Superintendent Terry Bergeson won't release the results of the 2006-07 WASL until next month.





State Board of Education officials were concerned enough that, earlier this year, they hired Plattner's firm, Strategic Teaching, based in the Baltimore area, to review Washington's math standards. The report from her team, including the work of about two dozen out-of-state teachers and professors, is due on Thursday, but in a draft released in July, Plattner concluded that although the state's math education system is moving in the right direction, "Washington is not expecting enough of its students. There is insufficient emphasis on key mathematical content. Some key math should be taught earlier in a student's schooling, and some key math is simply missing."





Plattner adds that Washington's standards are too vague; they "often call for student 'understanding' rather than a demonstration that a student can actually use the math to calculate, estimate or solve a problem."





The report argues many Washington students don't sufficiently develop basic skills. "The heart of mathematics is number sense and computation, and these topics should be emphasized in elementary grades ... The revised standards should identify topics that will be taught over extended periods of time during a single school year," says the report. "This approach allows topics to have depth and to be fully developed."





Plattner says Washington's math standards are stronger in the early grades, but that there's room to improve. "Fractions, for instance, are introduced in Washington at grade 4," she writes. "Singapore and California [two comparison sites used in the study] fully develop this topic at grade 2."





Plattner's report also questions the use of calculators in grade school classrooms: "Students need to add, subtract, multiply and divide without a calculator."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he reaction to Plattner's review is mixed. Jim Brady, the dean of computing, math and science at Spokane Falls Community College, agrees the state standards should be clearer. "They're a great sleep aid," says Brady. "And I like that she recommends adding rigor and bringing back geometry and logic. But the references to Singapore disturb me." Brady argues the Singapore system should not be compared to Washington because it's meant to weed out students, while Washington is aiming to raise the math performance of all students. And he argues that Plattner is putting too much emphasis on improving computation skills: "There's no day-to-day need for students to do four-digit calculations on paper."





Maybe not, say parents' groups like Where's the Math? in Seattle, but students should have those skills in case they are needed. "We like the [report's] focus on algorithms [basic math processes]," says group co-founder Julie Wright. "We think our children need to be more proficient in basic computational skills. Washington's standards are heavy on conceptual understanding."





Tim Christensen is also bullish on the report. Christensen, an Otis Orchards parent and member of the state Board of Education's Math Review Panel, writes in a message posted on the Website of Parents for Math Matters (Spokane's version of Where's the Math?): "The recommendations and flavor [Linda] and her team have been bringing is very much what we want to see, moving away from 'fuzzy' undefined content toward very specific and measurable content."





Christensen was a member of an East Valley School District committee that a few years ago helped the district adopt a new "integrated math" curriculum, which integrates, instead of separates, disciplines like algebra and geometry. Although Christensen believes the "integrated" curriculum does a poor job of preparing students for college, he's pleased that his district also chose to offer students a "traditional" math track.


"There are strong arguments about keeping both," says Mark Purvine, the principal at East Valley Middle School. "The 'integrated' approach makes sense for those who struggle with traditional math. The jury's still out. It's one of those things that needs time."





The Spokane School District also offers the "integrated math" curriculum. Secondary Math Coordinator Kris Lindeblad told The Inlander in February that the program adds probability, statistics and problem solving to the traditional curricula. "I don't hear kids say, 'when are we going to use this?' anymore," said Lindeblad. "We're keeping kids enrolled in math at much greater rates... I think kids are enjoying it more."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & P & lt;/span & lattner's report will be forwarded to the State Board of Education (SBE). If the board approves it, members will send the recommendations to the state school superintendent's office, which will be then be in charge of writing new state math standards, with the help of Christensen's Math Review Panel.





"SBE, the Legislature and the Governor are very serious when they say they want change," writes Christensen on the Math Matters blog. "The wild card is that [State Superintendent] Dr. Bergeson is the lone voice of dissent, wanting to 'stay the course' of the failed reform mathematics."


Jim Brady from SFCC hopes the process of writing new standards will be more than a political exercise and lead to guidelines that blend the best of the "traditional" and "reform" math curricula.





"There's a movement there that the good old days are where we should go," says Brady, "but if you went back and measured success in the ways we do today, the old days wouldn't look so good."





ALL-DAY K


One way to get kids a better start in math is to offer all-day kindergarten, which is exactly what five Spokane schools are doing this fall





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & R & lt;/span & etired kindergarten teacher Terry Botsford was fielding questions last week from two dozen of her peers at a three-day workshop at Spokane's Chase Middle School: How do we get everything done that we need to get done in three hours (the length of an average half-day kindergarten class)? Where do you start? Can you help us prioritize things?





The questions were relevant for about half the class. Some will continue to teach half-day kindergarten sessions this fall, but others will have the luxury of working all day with their 5-year-olds. For at least the next two years the legislature will fund a full-day kindergarten pilot project statewide, including at five schools in Spokane.





Botsford, an energetic Port Orchard woman who is now consulting after 35 years in the classroom, including 15 as a kindergarten teacher, says her style works whether the teacher has three hours or six hours with her students. "The trick is to get the kids working independently. We want them to be self-regulated learners, and we do that by getting them to take responsibility for their own learning."





Botsford passed out the daily schedule for her children: 8:25 am -- Check-in and Table Activities; 8:40 -- Handwriting; 8:50 -- Circle Time, etc., all leading to an 11:15 dismissal. "We're moving every 10 minutes or so, but it's not unorganized," said Botsford. "We have a schedule and we follow it."





One of those listening to Botsford was Holmes Elementary School kindergarten teacher Emily Sobczuk. Holmes will offer full-day K, along with Bemiss, Logan, Regal and Stevens.





"When we had a half-day class, the kids could sense the rush," says Sobczuk. "We were in transition all day long. Now we'll have time to go deeper, to spend more time with them individually. They'll have more social time. They'll use more language. We'll have time to help them develop study skills." By the end of the year, Sobczuk believes, the children will have a deeper foundation that should help them in first grade.





"It's not that we'll cover more ground," adds Erin Stock, who taught full-day kindergarten in Colorado Springs and who is now scheduled to teach at Bemiss. "The kids learn the same curriculum [as in half-day classes], they'll just have more processing time. It also gives our specialists more time to work with the kids, especially those who fall behind."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & rom the school district's point of view, full-day kindergarten is a no-brainer, even though the district's grant from the state won't cover the full cost. The district will dip into its reserves to pay an extra $300,000, says Irene Gonzales, the district's executive director for teaching and learning services. "The state didn't take into account that when children are at school the whole day that they need to be fed. They're required to have P.E., art, music, those things that kids in the older grades have," says Gonzales. "And teachers need planning time. So we need to have extra help to allow all that to happen." The district has also hired extra kindergarten teachers because the full-day K teachers are covering only one class, instead of two.





Despite the cost, district officials hope full-day kindergarten is here to stay. They think it will lead to higher student achievement. "Research has found that participation in a high-quality, full-day kindergarten holds great promise," reads a February 2007 school district report. It says longer classes can eliminate some of the learning disadvantages from the first years of life. "While the average 4-year-old in a family receiving welfare has heard some 13 million spoken words, for example, a child from a working-class family has heard about 26 million, and a child from a professional family has heard almost 45 million words. Those disparities move beyond the number of words heard, to the amount of lap-time (being read to) the child has had, to the basic procedures (counting, addition, subtraction) that form the basis for much of his/her later mathematical learning."





Some question whether funding for full-day kindergarten will ever be available to every school in the state. "I think it's here to stay," says Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane), though she acknowledges the cost would be enormous. "It may take three or four budget cycles to fully implement. It depends on other priorities. For example, do we want to spend more for birth-to-3 programs?"





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "I & lt;/span & would love to teach full-day K," says Garfield kindergarten teacher Kathy Lipsker, who will lead half-day classes again this year. "As it is, there's too much to do in too little time. And for those who think kindergarten is all play time, there is no play time anymore. We're too busy reading and writing."





Apparently teachers aren't the only ones who want to be a part of full-day kindergarten. Irene Gonzales says she has started a waiting list at Holmes for parents of children at neighboring schools who want their children in the full-day classes. "Two weeks into school, we'll see where we are," she says, "and if there's room, we'll call those on the waiting list to see if they're still interested."
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