Fuzzy math? School District to review how subject is taught

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SEATTLE — When it comes to teaching math, a growing number of parents and educators want Seattle schools to check their numbers.

mathCritics say the current system is failing kids, and this summer the district starts considering alternatives.

Damon Ellingston, a university professor who teaches college math, physics and astronomy, says Seattle grads aren’t ready for college math.

“I had students coming from the Seattle public school system who had not really been exposed to the basic algorithms of math that you and I might have been exposed to when we went to high school a long time ago,” Ellingston said.

The problem, he said, is the textbooks.

Students in kindergarten through 5th grade use one called ‘Everyday Math.’

Some call it ‘fuzzy math,’ with colorful pictures and stories taking the place of basic computation, repetition and drills.

It’s “intended to teach students how to think about mathematical ideas and how to formulate thoughts.  I think it`s actually a laudable intention, but I think it’s pretty clear those textbooks have gone woefully wrong in the execution.”

Six years ago, then-Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell voted against ‘fuzzy math.’

DeBell, who is still a board member, said Seattle’s diverse student body requires an approach that all kids understand, but he agrees that ‘Everyday Math’ may have backfired.

“The number one complaint is that it`s confusing and it`s difficult to offer the help at home and help students achieve,” DeBell said.

The School District this summer will begin reviewing its math curriculum, and a more traditional — and effective — course of study could be in place by fall of 2014.

“I think we need to move back in the direction of more direct instruction, of clear ways to solve problems, agreeing there is one best way to do it and everybody learns it,” DeBell said.

State Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn said Washington needs to raise its standards.

Local tech companies are hiring from other states or even other countries to fill engineering jobs here because local kids aren’t proficient in math.

Dorn said the students must be more competitive.

“You literally have to memorize,” he said. “I know people say, oh no, memorize? But adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, you have to memorize those things, have them in your mind. Every day, in math, in my work and percentages and looking at concepts, I can easily do it in my head, because I have that foundational part.”

Ellingston has two daughters who will enter the public school system soon. If Seattle math is still ‘fuzzy,’ he said, they will be going somewhere else.

“They are not actually teaching them mathematics or how to think mathematically, in an attempt to sort of leap frog through the math, they threw the baby out with the bath water,” he said.

DeBell said the school board didn’t get enough parent feedback last time around, so that’s going to change.

One thing that won’t is middle school math. Reviewing those lessons isn’t in the budget.

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  • 5th grade teacher

    I would love to hear Ellington's view in on the math program, Investigations. It is far more "fuzzy" than Everday Math.

  • Rick

    First of all, there is no perfect textbook with all the answers. That's the reason we have teachers and school districts to determine which resources (textbooks included) will be used to enhance and promote learning. The interesting complaint on the other side is that our students don't know how to problem solve and can only handle regurgitated problems. Developing mathematical thinking is more than just knowing the basic facts, which I do believe are very important as well. Just because I'm a spelling and grammar expert doesn't mean I can write an award winning novel.
    It's also interesting that we ask college professors about teaching as very few actually know how to teach. Our societies understanding of teaching is if I'm a genius and I speak my knowledge then I'm teaching. Teaching isn't what the teacher knows, it's what the student can learn.
    I am a math teacher and over my career we have used different types of texts and we always have to supplement with what we as teaching professionals know is needed. Whether that be more drill and kill with the supposed 'fuzzy' math or more problem solving and real world problems with the 'traditional' math. If there were a perfect textbook that always working for every kid, every parent, every college professor and every career, then everyone would be using it.

    • Danielle

      Spelling and grammar are the building blocks of writing a great novel, or any novel- without the fundamentals no amount of creativity will make your work readable, let alone genius. Same goes for math. It's important to learn to think and problem solve, but the fundamentals need to be there. Math is a language, and you need to learn the rules and patterns and vocabulary in order to take it to the next step, just like any language. And sadly some curriculums leave the fundamentals out.

      School districts across the country have already been leaving Everyday Math. Seattle is behind the curve. It doesn't work. True, no one textbook works for everyone, but it has already been shown that students who use Everyday Math are learning math less well. The lack of a perfect textbook is no excuse for using one that is inadequate.

  • parent of EM student

    I'm surprised that Seattle doesn't think Everyday Math teaches memorization. When my son was in the program, he brought home Fact Triangles, which is a "next generation" flash card. We practiced with those regularly. I thought they were better than the flash cards I used as a kid because the Fact Triangles had complementary operations on each triangle. Smart! My son is now is Honors Math classes in a STEM academy in high school and is doing well.

  • Frank Wagner

    Interesting how the books shown are not EM books,but Connected Math Project for Middle School. Poorly researched story. EM students do well when the curriculum is presented the right way.

  • Fran

    It has been long know that teaching basic skills is essential before conceptual understanding of the material can occur. If Einstein had been born in the Stone Age, his genius might have allowed him to invent basic arithmetic. But being born at the end of the 19th century allowed him to use all of the techniques of advanced physics. Building on these techniques he created the theory of relativity.

    Why do educators ask students to re-invent basic math (at best) or skip over it entirely (at worst) and then expect them to move on to higher levels of math? It can't be done. There is no foundation. Why do people wonder "Why can't Johnny do math?" Because it was never taught!

  • Dave

    Let's do some fun math: EM in Seattle is a K-5 program. Seattle has been using EM for 6 years. A college professor says that students entering college are weak in math and it is because of EM. 5 plus 6 is 11. Therefore, the students who have been identified as weak in math did not learn any math via EM, but EM is blamed anyway???

    On the other hand, my daughter at another district had EM K-6. Fast forward 5 years – she just finished 11th grade and scored a 5 out of 5 on the AP Calc exam.

    Maybe EM isn't so bad! Don't be so quick to blame the books, especially when the whole premise of an argument is fatally flawed. Now that is a story worth writing about in the newspaper…

    • Dan

      I was wondering if anyone was going to catch this. If a 5th grade started EM 6 years ago, they still would be in high school. So how can the argument be made that EM is not preparing Seattle students for college math?? There can't be data for this yet. Come on Marni Hughes and Q13Fox. Think before you start spouting your one-sided conservative propaganda. Maybe you need to wait a couple years and see that EM students in fact are getting a good math education. Actually the couple parents who commented here that have EM students give more credence to EM being a good math program. This whole story is based on a false premise and idealogical agenda that the right has been unsuccessfully pushing for the last few years. The research continually shows that the kind of rote, procedural learning that traditional textbooks promote doesn't help one learn or think mathematically.

      • Max Power

        News flash: Everyday Math certainly doesn't teach students to "learn or think mathematically." Far from it: EM encourages the use of calculators and doesn't even teach basic math facts. It moves constantly from one subject to the next ("trust the spiral!"), never allowing students to master any one concept. This program was created not by mathematicians but by "educators" at the University of Chicago, and true math experts have long since denounced this math curriculum as complete nonsense.

        If you think wanting elementary school kids to learn real math is "conservative propaganda," so be it, but I just call it good education.

  • Lulu

    If they are using the materials shown, that is not Everyday Math. That is Connect Mathematics which is totally different. It's really sad to see that the wrong program is getting bashed.

  • Max Power

    Everyday Math is an absolute joke. My kids suffered through that nonsense for years until I finally yanked them out and put them in a private school that uses a real math program. Seattle may have been using EM for only a few years, but this dismal program has been a staple of most other public school systems around the country since the 1990s, and you can see where that's gotten us: At the bottom of international math rankings for any first-world country, colleges now having to offer remedial math for the majority of freshmen, STEM careers going to foreigners, etc.

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