Reader Sound-Off: Mathematics education in Washington

The West Puget Sound Chapter of the Washington Society of Professional Engineers strongly concurs with Ms. Joyce Fiess’ letter (CK Reporter, Nov. 6) concerning the mathematics education in the state of Washington. The Chapter recently heard a very disturbing presentation by Mr. Robert J. Benze on this very subject. It is obvious that too many graduating seniors are not prepared to go into engineering schools or even enter a trade school without remedial class work. This is class work that should have been accomplished in the K-12 curriculum. It means many potential engineering students are not going into engineering or taking longer to graduate.

During the past year, much has been made of unacceptable test scores in Math and Science on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). The recently completed Washington State Mathematics Standards Review and Recommendations points out that WASL mathematics test scores for 10th-grade students were 33 percent in 1999 and 51 percent in 2006. These scores are clearly unacceptable and should be in the 98 percent range. The report further states “compared to the standards of key states and high achieving countries, Washington is not expecting enough of its students. There is insufficient emphasis on core mathematical content. Some math should be taught earlier in a student's schooling, and some crucial math is missing completely.” The Legislature has decided to postpone the mandatory passing of Math and Science for high school graduation until 2012. There remains the question; how does this benefit the student and citizen of this state? Why should we believe the current education philosophy will be able to produce the needed results? Are the WASL tests going to be made easier to pass? We believe this teaching method is programmed to fail.

There are professions and trades that need and use math at all levels every day. One of those professions is engineering. One would find it very difficult to live in our society without the infrastructure designed and developed by engineers. Look around at the transportation, communication, and energy industries that support our lives. The general public needs to rely on the in-depth mathematical skills of its engineers to protect it from harm.

The cause is apparently a bloated education bureaucracy, a failed philosophy of education and lack of discipline. The education bureaucracy consists of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, State Board of Education, educational service districts and local districts. Only 40 percent of funding is going into the classroom. But it should be pointed out that lack of funding and class room size is NOT the reason for math and science failure. It is the failure of the educational system.

The basic culprit is the education philosophy called Constructivist Curriculum — the new 3Rs, Relating, Representing and Reasoning. It is smoke and mirrors. Mathematics depends on individual problem solving ability to arrive at the correct answer. Math does not lend itself to group gropes and “fuzzy” answers. Constructivism is heavy on teaching “concepts” and light on teaching “facts.” Constructivism emphasizes group work. We need to emphasize individual effort by the student. We also need to raise math education standards and the expectations of our students. Computers and calculators are wonderful tools, but they are mindless tools. How can you teach use of calculators before the student understands the basics and knows what the reasonable answer should be? Calculators should not be in the classroom until the basics are completely mastered by the student. This would be about the seventh-grade level.

The Constructivist Curriculum Standards are EALRs, “Essential Academic Learning Requirements,” and GLEs, “Grade Level Expectations.” There is lots of emphasis on “Understands the Concepts and Procedures” with little emphasis on “solving problems.”

The solution is to recognize the failure of the Constructivist Curriculum as it relates to mathematics and science, immediately eliminate the old Constructivism Curriculum and return to the hard core basics. Rewrite the ELARs and GLEs and use texts like the Singapore Math. Rewrite the WASL to reflect the new ELARs and GLEs. We fully realize that the costs to purchase new textbooks and retrain mathematics instructors will not be insignificant. Failure to correct the situation now will lead to a much higher price later due to the continued erosion of its competitive edge with other countries.

Finally, empower school boards and teachers to teach at the highest levels, interject personal discipline into the classroom, and raise our expectations for student achievement. It is time to cease lowering the average to be more inclusive.

The final question must be asked. Are educators truly professionals? Do they place the public health, safety and welfare of the public before all other considerations? We have serious doubts. It appears that it is more financially lucrative to be involved in education administration and authoring text books than being a classroom teacher.


National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)

Past president



NSPE past president


NSPE secretary/treasurer

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