Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pflug Pflubs

I’ve had this one sitting in my “to blog” pile for a while now, but this Tacoma News-Tribune commentary from State Senator Cheryl Pflug is a classic example of someone having just enough information to be dangerous:
When 49 percent of Washington’s high school sophomores – about 34,000 kids – failed to pass the math portion of the WASL in 2006, parents started screaming, and rightly so. Almost half of those students don’t have the skills required for a diploma.

Gov. Christine Gregoire and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson responded first by blaming educators for not “getting it right.” They said teachers need retraining and our kids need to take more classes.

Their plan is that our kids must either pass the WASL or stay in “rigorous math classes” until graduation – whether or not they actually pass the courses. Terrific motivator, huh?

While the fact that only 40 percent of our math teachers have math degrees is an issue, it isn’t the main problem.

The biggest problem is that our curriculum isn’t working.

Washington schools use the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics approach, which is weak in basic computational skills. When students don’t get the basics, they fail in more advanced courses. Sadly, they also conclude, “I’m not good in math.”

Since U.S. schools adopted NCTM standards, student math scores have plummeted nationwide. Savvy states such as Massachusetts, Indiana and California dumped NCTM in favor of internationally accepted standards, because students in these programs are preferred hands-down by college admissions deans and employers. Washington policymakers should follow their example.

Bergeson, who did her doctoral work with NCTM, and others continue to defend it – despite the lack of effective curriculum. In fact, the math teachers in my local junior high say they’ve logged more than 40 hours of prep time, each developing their own classroom curriculum to support these ineffective standards.

That’s a lot of work for an inferior outcome. A call for retraining is a slap in the face to teachers who are working overtime to make an impossible situation work. Instead of getting a pat on the back for struggling to create a curriculum that will work, teachers hear the superintendent say that they are the problem.

Retraining and more study will not get us there. We legislators need to take a stand for kids, parents and teachers who are being force-fed a math experiment that has already failed. It is tragic that we must delay the WASL requirement for graduation, because our students can’t afford to keep waiting. However, if we must delay, let’s at least fix the problem.

I recommend calling a small advisory committee of legislators and math teachers who can:

Identify clear and realistic grade-level expectations so teachers know clearly what skills students must master.

• Design school-based tutorial programs funded with Initiative 728 dollars. Helping students pass makes more sense than keeping them in classes where they aren’t succeeding, a move that will likely displace other necessary coursework.

• Fix the math WASL, which currently demands significant English and writing skills. Let’s make sure kids aren’t failing math because they don’t have English skills.

Why doggedly insist our students go down with the ship? Our kids are just as competent as those in other countries. Let’s dump our stubborn adherence to a failed curriculum and adopt a plan that works.

The problems are legion:

  1. Blaming the NCTM for weaknesses in computation just doesn’t work any more, with the release of the curriculum focal points, and things fall apart even farther when you note that teaching computation is fully embedded in the Grade Level Expectations for math.
  2. I get that, maybe, there isn’t space to cite research in an opinion column, but Pflug’s information about Massachusetts, Indiana and California is right out of the Fordham Foundation’s State of State Standards Report 2006, especially the forward by Joanne Jacobs which focuses on those three states directly.
  3. She says that Terry Bergeson did her doctoral work with the NCTM. I think that they would be as surprised as anyone to know that they can grant advanced degrees. For the record, her EdD is from the University of Washington.
  4. “I recommend calling a small advisory committee of legislators and math teachers who can identify clear and realistic grade-level expectations so teachers know clearly what skills students must master.” We have these, Senator. They’re called, oddly enough, the Grade Level Expectations, and we’ve already spent money hand over fist developing them.
  5. If you really want to make a difference, put more effort into making sure that the curriculum used in the state is aligned with what we’re asking the kids to do. Tell the schools that they can only use those curriculums that have passed state muster, especially for remedial and Title purposes.
  6. “Fix the math WASL, which currently demands significant English and writing skills.” Really? I’ve looked at the math WASL and the released answers, and I wouldn’t personally call what they’re asking for a significant demand.


I’ll continue to maintain that the problem we’re having with math in Washington is one where the blame can be shared equally among all the involved parties. The solution is not to run away or restart—it’s to continue pushing and doing everything we can for every child to meet these 10th grade standards.

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5:21 AM  

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