Washington state offers look at its new math philosophy for schools

SEATTLE — When the public gets its first peek at Washington’s proposed new grade-by-grade math learning requirements, what they’ll find most surprising is how easy they are to understand, the consultant managing the revision effort has promised.

No drastic changes are on the horizon — kindergartners are still going to learn to count, not multiply and divide — but some philosophies about teaching math are changing, said Kathy Seeley, senior fellow at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas.

“It’s a pretty significant rewrite, but it’s not dismissing what was there before,” said Seeley, who has been guided in her work by a committee of Washington educators.

The problem with the old standards was not so much the content, but how difficult they were to use by both parents and teachers, Seeley said. The old standards left everyone in the dark about the learning priorities for each year, so teachers had to do some guessing about what to emphasize and most parents didn’t have a clue.

Seeley wouldn’t share many specifics about the new learning requirements before the draft is released on Tuesday, but she did offer some examples about the way the teaching of math is evolving in Washington and around the nation.

The current math learning standards offer a spiral of learning — a number of concepts are taught over a number of years with more depth added over time. The new standards will shorten the length of time students are given to master a concept like fractions, but during the years in which fractions are a major emphasis, teachers will spend more time and make more of an effort to ensure that every child understands the concept thoroughly, Seeley said.

“We’re really trying to get past the spiral, so students don’t get stuck spinning around,” she said.

At every grade level, there will be three or four big hits. For example, grade three will focus on multiplication, division with whole numbers, fractions and early geometry.

A list of the computational skills that need to be learned and the reasoning and problem-solving ideas that go with each concept will be included. Following that will be a list of smaller concepts or supporting ideas that should also be taught at that grade level but not emphasized as much as the big hits: like learning to tell time, use money or do measurement. Some smaller concepts will become big hits in later years.

Since the Legislature adjourned last spring, the Washington Board of Education has been working with the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and consultants like the Dana Center to revise the way math is taught and learning is assessed in Washington.

The goal is to realign what is being taught in the classroom with what is being tested on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning so that by the time the math section of the WASL becomes a graduation requirement in 2013, the test makes more sense as an assessment of math learning in this state and more students will pass it. Both the learning requirements and the WASL will be revised by 2013.

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