UW Professors See Problems With How Math Is Taught

SEATTLE

Sixty University of Washington professors have signed a letter to the Legislature saying that many college freshmen can’t solve math problems, even at a middle-school level.

“This is a big issue for us at the University of Washington,” said Dr. Cliff Mass, a professor in the atmospheric sciences department who gathered the signatures.

Physics Department Chairman David Boulware said he co-signed the letter because he is appalled that many of his students are “confounded by simple algebra.”

The professors worry that the state’s efforts to revise its math standards won’t do enough to improve the situation, Mass said. They’re also concerned that the revision is too heavily influenced by education experts, not scientists.

“There’s a tremendous bifurcation between the people who need math and use math in their jobs … and the people who teach math,” he said.

Many education experts favor “inquiry-based” methods in which students are encouraged to discover underlying concepts instead of being given a formula. Mass says that approach isn’t working, if more Washington public high school graduates are ending up in remedial math courses at college.

Brian Jeffries, the graduation policy director for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, said it’s not true that more students are ending up in remedial math classes.

The UW is required to report to the state the number of students who take remedial classes, and the most recent data available, from 2005-06, show that only about 2 percent of Washington public high school students do so, he said.

Concern over UW students’ math abilities is not universal at the school. No instructors from the College of Education signed the letter.

A lecturer in the university’s Math Department, Ginger Warfield, says math education in Washington is fine. She said mathematicians know how to teach at the collegiate level, but they don’t have a clue how to teach math to children.

Warfield said the “sky is falling” rhetoric is irritating and divisive.

“Washington math isn’t a disaster,” she said. “By many measures, we’re fine, and relative to the rest of the country, we’re much better.”

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