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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

August 19, 2009 at 4:00 PM

Math textbook debate: Is math really that important?

Listening to math experts won’t help select a textbook

Which statement is most absurd: Each school district should choose its math book, or “math people” — engineers, mathematicians and scientists — enjoy practicing their math skills with drills?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the countries that do well in math education use the same book nationwide. Perhaps we should choose one of those and have it translated.

One thing I am sure of: We must avoid listening to those “math people” who rely on their education in math to qualify for and, often, to practice their profession.

— Mickey Walker, Redmond

Does math really need such attention?

The article on math textbooks [“Which math book to use? A passionate debate rages,” page one, Aug. 16] includes the following semiarticulate comment from Issaquah School Superintendent Steve Rasmussen: “All of our kids want to go, and we want them to go, to college, and math is the gatekeeping course.”

It seems to me that Rasmussen might have benefited from greater focus on communication skills during his college years. I’ve long wondered why math is required of all U.S. college students. There are many otherwise capable students who simply cannot master higher math, regardless of the curriculum used.

Why should they be barred from attaining an academic degree if they have college-level talents in the liberal arts, for example? In the United Kingdom, and numerous other countries, the typical undergrad studies only one subject, allowing them to gain a deeper grasp of the material and emerge truly well-educated in the field of their choice.

Not everyone needs to be a scientist or mathematician.

— Richard Schafer, Bothell

Debate centralizes on preparing for tests, not teaching math

The math-textbook debate is really about which text will best prepare students for the math exam. It is not about teaching math.

Education is a process not a product. Teaching to the math test is not teaching math — it is simply teaching the math test.

In fact, much of our innumeracy is due to such nonteaching of mathematics. Let’s pay more attention to teaching math and less to testing and the textbook industry.

— Don Pollock, New York City, N.Y.

Encouraging calculator use will help aid math education

I am the parent who testified in favor of the Math Adoption Committee’s recommendation of the Discovering series on the night the Seattle School Board voted to support the adoption.

In my testimony, I referenced new research from the Education Research Centre at St. Patrick’s College that found that calculator use by students raised both conceptual understanding and achievement.

In fact, in rigorous final exams, so-called ordinary-level students using calculators performed as well as higher-level students who did not use them. The conclusion is that not only do calculators not hinder learning, they actually enhance it.

The benefits are across the board, but, in addition, the researchers conclude calculators may be of particular advantage to the student who previously may have become disenchanted or fearful of math, as the use of the calculator deepened understanding and buoyed confidence.

It is ironic to me then to find, in a supposedly technologically advanced metropolitan region such at Seattle, this gigantic Neanderthal fear of the humble and effective calculator in the classroom.

Sophisticated textbook series like Discovering, which encourage calculator use, are the way to go for today’s students. Mathematics instruction is not just about teaching a progressive set of skills; it is also about understanding what enhances learning.

Calculators do just that.

— Catherine Costello, Seattle

With reform stumbling, an honest assessment is needed

The page-one article [“WASL scores level, but more schools in federal trouble,” Aug. 15] regarding 2009 Washington Assessment of Student Learning results, sounded an all-too-familiar refrain.

“We are puzzled, No Child Left Behind is at fault and so is the WASL.” The sad fact is, that 17 years after education reform was started in Washington state, a consistently high number of public high-school graduates in this state who enter community college or a university must take remedial math, English, reading or a combination of those. What does this say about those who don’t go on or the 30 percent that drop out? These are dismal statistics.

It is never one issue in education. While the curriculum (particularly in math), graduation requirements, teacher qualifications and school districts all own a significant share of our plight, parent involvement, proper funding and other factors play a role. You can never generalize about these things, and, for sure, there are some exceptional teachers, principles, individual schools and committed parents.

A first step toward improvement is an honest assessment of where we really are. Then we must do whatever is necessary to address the issues. Otherwise the future will be pretty bleak, especially for our children.

— Charlie Liekweg, Kirkland

Comments | More in Education, Education reform, Math, Washington Assessment of Student Learning


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