Monday, December 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Reform" math: Examining the pluses, minuses

Seattle Times staff reporter

As students file into her classroom at Shorecrest High, Marilyn Leverson flips through the textbook to show how math instruction is changing.

Words dominate the pages, not numbers. There's not a problem set to be found. It's definitely not the kind of math book that parents remember — which dismays some of them.

Leverson, however, loves the book. It's a more effective way, she says, to help students understand — not just memorize — mathematics. It sparks more interest in the subject, too, she says, and seems to have helped boost Shorecrest's math scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which more than half the state's sophomores failed last spring.

With the WASL scheduled to become a graduation requirement in 2008, concerns about math are rising. If nothing changes soon, a failing math score on the WASL could stand between many students and their diplomas.

Some middle and high schools are now requiring students to take two math classes a day if they're behind, and others are increasing math requirements in high school. (Washington is one of about a dozen states that require only two years of math.) Many districts also are beefing up training for teachers, especially elementary-school educators who often have little background in math.

But many educators think math needs to be taught differently, too. Shorecrest, in Shoreline, is among a growing number of schools embracing what's known as "reform" math, which stresses problem-solving over problem sets, based on long-standing recommendations of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Critics call it "fuzzy" math and warn it fails to give students a good grounding in the basics. Some parents complain that students leave elementary school without being taught how to do long division. But schools in more than a half-dozen districts in the Seattle area are, to different degrees, moving in the "reform" direction.

Few doubt students' math skills could use a boost. On a number of international exams, U.S. students score lower than those in many other industrialized countries. In this state, students not only do poorly on the WASL, more than half of those who enter the state's community colleges must take remedial math courses, according to a study by the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Many students (and their parents) don't view math as something they must be good at, math teachers say.

"The cultural and personal attitudes about math are huge barriers for us," said Bill Moore of the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges, who is part of an effort to reduce the percentage of students who must take remedial math in college. "Plenty of people accept innumeracy as an OK thing."

Even when she used a more traditional text, Leverson says, she dreamed up exercises and projects like the ones in the new book Shorecrest uses, part of a series called the Interactive Mathematics Program. Its texts are divided into sections that start with a big problem that students spend weeks learning the math to solve.

One morning this fall, for example, a group of mostly sophomores and juniors in an Integrated III class were weeks deep into a trigonometry problem that required them to calculate when a man riding the Ferris wheel can let go of a partner to ensure the partner lands in the water as the cart passes by.

To figure it out, students learn about sines, cosines, polar coordinates and some physics. Along the way, they learn a number of formulas, but from their teacher, not the book. And Leverson expects them to be able to explain why the formulas work, too.

The idea is to deepen students' understanding of math so that they're not lost if they forget a formula, or face that problem not previously explained in the book. And to let students find approaches that work for them.

"Everyone needs at least two ways to add, subtract, multiply and divide efficiently and accurately," says Jane Goetz, director of instructional services in Seattle Public Schools and, before that, an award-winning math teacher. She notes that many countries don't teach standard U.S. methods, such as "borrowing" in subtraction.

In all, it's a big shift in how math is taught, one that draws in some students and frustrates others.

"It's a lot more interesting than it was before," said Aydan Sarikaya, 15, one of Leverson's students. "It's a lot easier to visualize."

But Justin Kofoed, 16, prefers the more traditional books he used in middle school. Those texts "explained stuff a lot more," he said. The Interactive Mathematics approach, he said, "definitely takes a lot more work."

Shorecrest, however, is seeing promising results after switching to Interactive Math from a somewhat more traditional series a little more than two years ago. Last year, the sophomores who had used those books since they were freshmen scored 10 percentage points higher on the WASL than the sophomores the year before.

And at Garfield High in Seattle, which piloted the Interactive Math series last spring, teachers found that many students who struggled in math quickly blossomed.

In California, a move toward "reform" math a decade ago led to what came to be known as the "math wars," with parallels to the "reading wars" that pitted those who view phonics as central to reading instruction against those who favored more of a focus on reading comprehension.

And in math, like in reading, many teachers favor a middle road.

"Do I want kids to be fluent in addition, multiplication and division? You bet," says Bev Neitzel, director of a new math initiative at the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. "But if they get to seven times eight, and they can't remember what the answer is, I want them to have a strategy because they understand what multiplication is and can figure it out."

But some think the balance is still out of whack.

Drills haven't disappeared from "reform" classrooms. At Shorecrest, for example, students must pass a number of "mastery" tests on skills teachers think should be second nature, such as factoring. Proponents say the "reform" approach reinforces basic skills in ways that don't look like drills, and that students need less practice when they understand the concept.

But drills and computation, such as long division, do not get as much focus in "reform" classes. Leverson, for example, doesn't think students can or need to quickly divide five-digit numbers by four-digit numbers by hand. Students, like adults, should be able to use calculators to do that, she says, and it doesn't hold them back.

And that's one reason critics say "reform" math adds up to a big problem.

Ballard math teacher Niki Hayes is one of them. When she returned to teaching high-school math last year, she says she was surprised to find how many students couldn't do basics such as adding fractions. Showing them the steps refreshed many of their memories, she said, but the fact that they had forgotten showed they didn't know it well enough.

"You don't forget something that you really know," she said.

The national math council has good intentions but students don't get enough practice to master important skills, she says. So they struggle in algebra, Hayes says, because they're weak in long division.

There just isn't enough time in the regular, 50-minute math class to teach math through projects, she says, especially for students who are already behind. And she doesn't like "integrated" math, which she says jumps around too much, leaving students with holes in their knowledge.

Hayes favors Saxon Math, a textbook full of numbers and problem sets, and many fewer — and shorter — word problems. She has used the Saxon series in Texas, at an Indian reservation near Spokane and, most recently, at North Beach Elementary in Seattle, where she was principal for four years. In all those places, she said, students' math-test scores rose.

Hayes, however, says she's a "lone voice in the wilderness" among math educators in this state. But she's not all alone.

In the Lake Washington School District, for example, parent Shalimar Backman complained when she realized her son, as a fifth-grader, hadn't learned the standard method for long division.

"He was just doing wacko things trying to figure out how to divide," she said. "Fingers and toes and other things."

At TOPS, a K-8 school in Seattle, one parent says that when her son was in fifth grade, a third of the class sought after-school tutoring because their parents didn't think they were learning the basics well enough.

In Tacoma, students have two choices in high school — reform or traditional math. Teachers recommended the former, but the School Board decided to give families a choice, and about one-fifth of the students take the traditional math track.

One variable that's often forgotten is how well math is taught, said Craig Gabler, math-curriculum director in the Tacoma School District.

"It's easy to bash a book," he says. But taught well, he said, students using "reform" books get the basic skills they need.

The trend is moving toward "reform" math in many places. In high schools, for example, Shorecrest and two Seattle high schools — Garfield and Nathan Hale — use the Interactive Math series. The Bellevue School District has used a "reform" program called Core-Plus in its high schools for a number of years. Northshore uses it, too.

Some districts, such as Edmonds, use traditional books in some schools, "reform" books in others. Several districts use books that JoAnne Robinson, president-elect of the Washington State Mathematics Council, describes as midway between "reform" and traditional. Those include Everett, Lake Washington, Mercer Island and Issaquah.

Critics of "reform" math say it will hurt students when they go on to college, but that's debated, too. At the community-college level, professors like the kind of mathematical thinking that the "reform" approach promotes, says Moore of the state community-college board. A lot of students end up in remedial courses, he said, in large part because they simply don't take enough math — often taking the placement test a full two years after cracking their last math book.

At the University of Washington, math professor David Collingwood says students seem to be able to set up problems better, but they struggle with the algebra. His impression is that they're less prepared than they were 20 years ago. His colleague, Ken Bube, isn't so sure.

"Their preparation is different," Bube said. "The question is whether you want to say one is better than the other."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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