Math Wars: Seattle

The current battlefront in the math wars seems to be in Seattle, Washington. Complete with the usual "reform" vs. "traditional" arguments, the winner of this argument might be decided in a court of law. Last May, Seattle's school board, after a lengthy review process, selected Key Curriculum Press's Discovering Mathematics series for high school math. The decision came by a 4-3 vote, and opponents to the decision have now filed a lawsuit against the district. The opponents appear to have organized themselves around the following three websites:
There's some pretty fascinating reading here, not because I'm in agreement, but simply because I like to see how the arguments are framed. (And who's doing the framing.) In particular, I read the "History of Math Instruction" page and found several items that I think the NCTM would strongly disagree with. One, it claims in 1989 "the NCTM create[d] a new set of standards but fail[ed] to include any mathematicians in the creation of these standards." I have no idea how anyone could support such a claim. (Note: Clifford F. Mass, one of the leading opponents of the Seattle text adoption, is an atmospheric science professor.) Second, the History page claims the 2000 NCTM standards "urge teachers to now emphasize the fundamentals of computation, accuracy, and basic math fact memorization skills." This too seems to be an unsupportable claim. While I don't mean to attempt to discredit an entire website based on one page, such manipulations of the truth are unfortunate and misleading.

Untruthiness aside, I think the traditionalists have the edge in this battle. Not because they're making a better argument, have research on their side, or other typical reasons, but because in my opinion the Discovering Mathematics series is not something very many ardent reformists will fight for. In Key Curriculum Press's own lineup of textbooks, the NSF-funded Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP) is the clear reform choice. I tried to use Discovering Algebra and Discovering Geometry for a year and found them ill-suited for me and not well aligned with the Colorado mathematics standards. (That said, the geometry book is considerably better than either of the algebra books, in my opinion, and might be worth considering if it aligns to your standards.) I would love to have been in the district's committee meetings leading to the recommendation of the Discovering texts. I can only guess that the selection was a compromise made with hopes that the texts would be traditional enough to quell the arguments of the objectors. (Compared to IMP, they look quite traditional.) If that's what happened, it didn't work.

For more opinion on Math Wars: Seattle, check out the discussion on the Math Forum. It got ugly pretty quickly, for reasons that certainly aren't specific to the Seattle battle. Politics and education can be a curious and frustrating mix!

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