Earlier this year, the Seattle School Board changed the kind of math textbooks used in our elementary schools, selecting texts intended to be used with explicit instruction. Under explicit instruction, teachers are expected to actually teach rather than turn students loose to discover mathematics principles on their own. The board picked the Math in Focus series, a version of Singapore Math.
Seattle Public Schools began using reform math textbooks in the 1990s. In that approach, students are supposed to learn by discovering mathematical truth in the process of solving problems. They typically work in groups, noting their thoughts in journals and portfolios, and using calculators constantly as they complete discovery-type projects. Advocates have touted reform math as a way to get kids excited about math and create a culture of learning.
Unfortunately, this approach was based on an unrealistic vision rather than on fact. It has been a failure both in Seattle and in the U.S. as a whole; our math students have fared poorly in comparison with those of other developed countries. On the most recent international math test, the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. finished 36th of the 65 countries participating, behind virtually all other developed countries. Earlier tests showed similar results.
During the last seven years, my students at Ballard High School consistently performed better than their peers at other public Seattle high schools on Advanced Placement Calculus exams. Since 2011, when state end-of-course tests were established, I have taught only one class that has a state test and is required for graduation — Algebra 1, our school’s lowest-level math class, in the 2011-12 school year. My students earned the highest passage rate in the district on that test.
I did everything wrong, according to reform math proponents. I explained things carefully (calling on students to contribute as I went), required lots of practice, and gave hard quizzes and tests. My students didn’t work in groups, didn’t do projects, didn’t keep journals or portfolios, and used calculators only when the nature of the problems required it. For my calculus classes, I used an older textbook, not the district’s official reform-based book. For algebra, I had no alternative text, but I used the reform text very little, making up my own instruction and developing many worksheets for students to use for practice. In short, I used explicit instruction.
I had no special charisma and wasn’t a teenage cult figure. My students’ success came primarily from the methods I used and from their own hard work. Most teachers, assuming they know the material, would be successful using similar teaching methods.
Other Seattle schools where math teachers used explicit instruction over the years have been very successful: North Beach and Schmitz Park elementaries, Mercer Middle School and Franklin High School, among others. I don’t object to teachers using reform methods, provided the results show success, but I haven’t seen much evidence of that outcome.
Kudos to our school board for its courage and foresight opposing the educational dogma that has long been promoted by schools of education and various so-called education experts. Let us hope that the board will soon select good textbooks for our middle and high schools, too.
Ted Nutting retired in 2014 after teaching math at Ballard High School for 17 years. Prior to that, he had a 30-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard.