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Recalculating Math 

by Doug Nadvornick & r & & r & I & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & n & lt;/span & parents' math group circles, M.J. McDermott is a star. She's a Seattle television meteorologist who created a 15-minute video about solving fourth- and fifth-grade-level math problems.





"Do you think students in Washington state should learn multiplication and division with mastery by the end of the fifth grade?" she asks. "If so, you must insist that schools and school districts not use these curricula," and she lists two textbooks used in many districts.





In her Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth -- which you can watch on www.YouTube.com -- McDermott explains the differences between the way multiplication and division problems were solved when she went to school 20 years ago and the ways they're solved in many classrooms now.


Her conclusion: More students today are lousy at math. She blames the methods taught in the "integrated math" programs adopted by many districts.





"A college professor recently told me that they get students in college who can't do four-times-six without a calculator," McDermott says. "And now my children are in elementary school, and I know why students are not more prepared for college math and science."





Critics of Washington's math standards say McDermott's video is a must-see for parents who worry their kids are stuck in "fuzzy math" programs, those that integrate, rather than separate, the traditional disciplines of algebra, geometry and trigonometry and which require students spend less time learning their multiplication tables and long division.





On Monday, some of those critics rallied in Olympia as they met for what they called "Where's the Math Day?"





Shaun Brown of Liberty Lake took some of her five children with her. "My two high school sophomores aren't taking math in school," she said. She also has two students in middle school and one in elementary school. "I'm happy with the math my youngest is learning, but at the middle school level I'm frustrated with the slow pace. Students are doing far less math than they're capable of. Instead they sit in work groups and 'discover.'"





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & & lt;/span & Just as Brown and her peers have math in their crosshairs, so do the governor, state school superintendent and legislators, who have noticed that only half of the state's high school sophomores passed the math section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) last spring. More than 80 percent passed the reading and writing sections.





State school Superintendent Terry Bergeson wants a timeout to figure out what's wrong. She has asked legislators to approve a bill that would, for the next three years, give high school seniors a reprieve from having to pass the math section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL).


"That would require students to stay in a mathematics program designed to move them from where they are to the 10th-grade standard," Bergeson told the House Education Committee in January.





Legislators are moving slowly on that; two identical bills have received committee hearings but haven't yet been voted on. In addition, lawmakers are considering a dozen other math education bills. One would require students to take a third year of high school math, something the Central Valley School District already requires and which the Spokane School District has adopted, beginning with the class of 2008.





Bergeson's office, with the state Board of Education, has started a review of the state's math standards. But another bill, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Schindler (R-Spokane Valley), would order that review be done by an independent committee. Shaun Brown applauds that.





"We think it's wrong for [the state superintendent's office] to revise the standards," says Brown. "They already direct assessment. There are no checks and balances."





But there are many who believe public school math education is fine as it is. What some consider to be "fuzzy math," Kris Lindeblad sees as "a more sophisticated, rigorous, integrated series." Lindeblad, the Spokane School District's secondary math coordinator, says the district's math program adds probability, statistics and problem-solving to the traditional disciplines. She says students find it more interesting and relevant to their lives.





"I don't hear kids say, 'When are we going to use this?' anymore," she says. "I think we're keeping kids enrolled in math at much greater rates. I think kids are enjoying it more and understanding why they're learning the procedures that they're learning better."





Lindeblad says the critics don't understand or they ignore the fact that the district's math program includes the information they want taught to their children, just not in the same form in which it has traditionally been packaged. Still, Lindeblad says, she shares the concerns of parents who worry their children aren't learning the computational skills they need.





"We have some hard questions ahead of us about how much [computation] is enough," she says. "Do kids need to know the square root algorithm or not? People have really let that go ... and it's just not something we think is really necessary anymore. It's more important for [students] to learn how to estimate a square root and to learn how to use a calculator to find the square root."





The Spokane district's 10th-grade WASL scores are on a slow, upward trend, from about 40 percent passing the math section in 2002 to almost 52 percent meeting the state standard last spring.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & or years, local college math instructors have complained that many of their incoming students can't handle freshman-level math classes and have had to enroll in remedial classes.





"Colleges and high schools no longer take the same road to math literacy," says Jim Brady, the dean of mathematics, computing and science at the Community Colleges of Spokane. "High schools use a curriculum that stresses breadth. Colleges have more of a traditional algebra curriculum."





In 2001, Brady began meeting with Spokane Superintendent Brian Benzel, former East Valley Superintendent Mike Jones and former Eastern Washington University President Steve Jordan to talk about how school districts could better prepare students for college math. Those talks led to the Math-Science Partnership Initiative, which was signed on Feb. 5 by seven Spokane education institutions, from school districts to universities.





The agreement seeks to get K-12 districts and colleges to work together to decide which math skills should be taught before students graduate from high school. It will also look at ways to improve the skills of math and science teachers. The agreement will also draw upon the state's College Readiness Math Standards, which Brady helped to create.





Brady, who says he considers himself a math education traditionalist, hopes the agreement will start a healing of the "math wars."





"It's hard to believe everything is horrible," he says. "SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores are up in the Spokane School District with a curriculum that wasn't good. Students can still take calculus. As long as people stand in their polarized camps, kids lose."





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