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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

October 14, 2008 at 4:58 PM

Math mess

Where’s the thinking?

Ted Nutting [“A formula for lifting Washington out of its math mess,” Times, guest commentary, Oct. 12] is part of the group “Where’s the Math?” The organization is well-intentioned, partially informed and very political. They believe the half century of work in math education that started when Sputnik went up was entirely misguided. They have convinced our Legislature to implement a 19th-century mathematics curriculum in our schools.

The old ways of teaching math were not perfectly effective.

Consider the nonsensical: “There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?” Then go to http://hub.mspnet.org/index.cfm/9217 to learn that:

“Researchers report that three out of four schoolchildren will produce a numerical answer to this problem. A transcript of a child solving this problem aloud reveals the kind of misinformed conception of mathematics that many children hold: 125+5=130 … this is too big, and 125-5=120 is still too big … while 125/5=25. That works! I think the shepherd is 25 years old. In this child’s world, mathematics is seen as a set of rules — a collection of procedures, actually — that must first be memorized and then correctly applied to produce the answer.”

This view only slightly overstates what “Where’s the Math?” advocates. The WASL [Washington Assessment of Student Learning] combats it by having part of the problems involve picking out the right numbers to use — just like in the real world.

We should ask “Where’s the Math?” — “Where’s the thinking? ”

— Bill Marsh, Port Angeles

Let’s get back to basics

Thank you for printing Ted Nutting’s story about teaching math.

I retired from teaching elementary school 10 years ago. I returned to substitute two years ago because of financial necessity. It is hard to believe what has fallen by the wayside in order to teach to the WASL test. No longer are social studies, English grammar, spelling, penmanship or art taught in schools.

Instead, there are two hours a day spent “teaching reading” to kids who are reading Dr. Seuss books in third and fourth grades. Ninety minutes a day are spent teaching math to the tune of “Show your answer using words, pictures or numbers.”

Sixth-graders are having trouble solving story-problem-style subtraction problems using work sheets similar to those we used to use in teaching second grade.

Perhaps I am too old-fashioned, but we used to be able to teach all of the above subjects and still have time for fun activities once in a while.

I guess we must have been fairly effective, as the old methods managed to educate the shakers and movers of the engineering, medical and rocket-science worlds.

— Mac McMullen, Seattle

What can we do?

Ted Nutting’s commentary on reform math in Sunday’s paper struck a chord with our family.

We have found the same issues he discusses in Ballard relevant in Bothell/Northshore as well. So much so that we pulled our children out of school and are home-schooling them.

It has been heartbreaking to realize that our kids, at sixth, fifth and second grades are so demoralized about math that they already believe that they are not good at it.

This is despite the fact that they all test above grade-level. We are now using Saxon math at home and are slowly reclaiming their confidence. When shown standard algorithms for simple arithmetic, they become frustrated at having not been taught that in school. Instead, they explored multiple ways to do simple problems, with no clear method taught for solving basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

When I discussed this with the school’s principal, she repeatedly assured me that reform math would be successful for them and that we just needed to trust they would “get it” at some point. We waited several years and watched our kids struggle until we felt we couldn’t wait any longer.

I agree with Nutting that education leaders should focus on what works.

The question is, what happens to those kids who are at the age that they cannot wait a few more years to “get math”?

— Linda Gorordo, Bothell

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