Theodore Nutting has been on a crusade for nearly the whole time he’s been a teacher at Ballard High School, 16 years now. He says the Seattle Public Schools’ way of teaching math doesn’t add up to success for students.
Math seems always to be in the middle of some controversy or another. This year, for the first time, seniors in Washington have to prove not just the required command of reading and writing, but that they understand algebra or geometry in order to graduate. Not meeting the math requirement has put more than 3,700 students at risk of not getting the diploma they were expecting this spring.
Nutting isn’t the only person who has a concern about math education. I’ve heard professors say they get students who haven’t mastered the fundamentals of mathematics. Companies say they can’t find enough candidates for technical jobs, partly because the pipeline to the skills they need run through math.
Nutting contacted me last month because of a column I’d written about calls for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates. Students can’t get into STEM fields if they can’t do math.
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“It’s awful to make it so kids don’t have those opportunities,” Nutting said.
Nutting said the district wants students to explore and discover math principles, but in the process they’re missing basics. I spoke with him about that, and later with some district officials who see things differently.
Nutting, who recently turned 70, retired in 1995 from the U.S. Coast Guard after a 30-year career. He went back to school and got his teaching credentials because he wanted to do something beneficial, but seeing so many students struggle got him worked up about the way math is taught.
Nutting said the discovery method, which is used in lots of districts, leaves many students confused and lacking the basic skills to build on when they arrive at high school, unless they’ve gotten help from parents or tutors outside of school.
Elementary schools in Seattle use the Everyday Mathematics program and middle schools use Connected Math. High schools also use the discovery method.
“As I understand it,” he said, “the idea behind this discovery method is that the kids learn the concept, not just how to do it. But from my experience, the majority of kids doing that don’t know how to do it and don’t know the concept either.”
His described his method, “I explain to students how and why the math works, I give them lots of practice, and I require that they learn it as measured by tests and quizzes.“ He also uses an older textbook rather than the one the district assigns.
And he is proud of the results. “I do everything ‘wrong’ according to today’s math-teaching ‘experts,’ ” he said. But, “for the last five years, my students have scored by far the highest in the Seattle school district on the AP (Advanced Placement) Calculus AB test, and Ballard is not a gifted magnet school.”
Nutting said that last year, 92.9 percent of his Algebra 1 students passed the state test, while 67.5 percent of the students of the other Ballard math teachers passed the test.
I asked two of those officials about Nutting’s ideas and about the way math is taught currently. Shauna Heath is the executive director of curriculum and instruction for the district. Janet Zombro is the math program manager.
Heath said, discovery math, Connected Math, Everyday Math, “those are resources the district provides to teachers. We provide the what. Teachers are professionals who provide the how.” She’s been in her current position since January and said she believes the math materials are good.
They said the materials they provide teach both concepts and fundamentals. “You have to understand concepts and procedures,” Zombro said, “It’s not just drill and kill.”
“Best math practices combine both,” Heath said, and the resources the district provides support both. Nutting said he does both, but his balance leans toward basics.
They said they’ll meet with Nutting in a month or two and hear what he has to say. But they said there are more than 3,000 teachers in the district and they all have their ways of doing things.
That’s true. Each teacher our son had from elementary school through high school, in the district and elsewhere, taught differently. Connected Math in middle school drove me crazy because it makes it difficult for parents to help with homework, but also some teachers were better than others at helping children (and parents) manage. There were a few years when we turned to tutors for the basics, but our son appreciates the conceptual stuff now, too. (He’s a college junior and loves his high-level math courses.)
Getting the mix of fundamentals and discovery right seems like the optimum situation. Having the right materials counts, but getting the mix right depends most heavily on the teacher, just as it does in any other subject.
That can be a problem. The publication Education Week reviewed research that found the students who struggle most in math are least likely to get the best teachers.
I don’t agree with Nutting on everything. He admits to being labeled an elitist because he wants only the highest-performing students in his AP courses. But results count.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org