The Case for Utah adopting California's Math Standards
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Testimony of Oak Norton to the Appropriations Sub-Committee of the Utah Legislature
Regarding Adoption of California’s Math Standards by Utah’s State Board (2/2/2006)
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, it is my great pleasure to be here today and testify to the challenging math problem we face in Utah. There is a solution.
My name is Oak Norton and I am a CPA. I grew up in Pennsylvania and received a wonderful education in math being raised in the shadow of Penn State University. In third grade I was required to memorize the times tables to 12 times 12. Two years ago, my oldest daughter was in third grade and at the end of the year I asked the teacher when they were going to cover the times table. The teacher replied, “it’s not part of the curriculum anymore.” When I asked how the children were to learn their math facts, this veteran teacher replied, “well, the smart kids will just pick it up as they go.”
I have had numerous opportunities to speak with people in the Alpine School District and their reply to these issues is that for people like me, math came easy and they wanted a program to help those that struggle with math. What they can’t seem to grasp is that by removing memorization of the basic math facts, they are devastating the mathematical abilities of those they were trying to help. Fuzzy math used in Alpine and other districts in Utah, was condemned by Dr. Wilfred Schmid of Harvard when he said that by 5th grade, students were roughly two years behind their peers (See Attachment 9 for this quote). If I had time I could tell you numerous stories about parents who thought their children were doing well in school because they were receiving good grades, but upon examining them, found them lacking in many skills, even years behind, just as Dr. Schmid warned.
Attachments 1 and 2 show one example of a second grade student in Alpine District. This 2nd grader received a 94% “A” on her report card for math, but the parents were concerned and took her to a Sylvan learning center where they tested her on a California standardized exam. The child was rated as a second grade, fourth month level for testing purposes. She scored at a first grade, second month level for computation skills, and a 6-month kindergarten level for concepts and applications (the main reason fuzzy math is supposed to help). She scored 30% correct on her addition facts and 10% on subtraction, yet she was a 94% “A” student. Unfortunately, this type of story is typical. Parents don’t know what the problem is until it’s too late because their children are bringing home meaningless good grades which parents associate with knowledge, instead of mastery of facts far below their child’s grade level.
Homework is worthless in these programs such as second grade assignments to count the number of pockets on parent’s clothing and describing a Yekte and what it eats and where it lives. Essays are written by children about their favorite numbers without any meaningful use of those numbers, presuming that thinking about them will produce deeper understanding than actually using them.
My oldest daughter was given the long division problem 120 / 30. She was solving the problem by drawing 120 circles on her paper and crossing them out 30 at a time. When I asked what she was doing and why she wasn’t doing it the way we taught her at home, she broke down in tears and said she wasn’t allowed to do it my way. Another parent that declined for several months to sign my petition, called me up a month ago and asked where to sign when she had this same experience with her daughter who is in an accelerated learning class. Some people never recognize the problem, but by the time some of us do, the damage has been done.
I now have almost 5% of the Alpine school district on a petition to ban fuzzy math from our district (including several math PhD’s from BYU) but the local school board still won’t listen. The state board won’t listen. In their world, they can’t accept the fact that parents know more about their children’s educational needs than they as educators and elected officials know. Every time a charter school opens in Alpine (and there’s 4 this year out of 10 in the whole state), it fills to capacity with waiting lists. Parents are sorely disappointed as their children are told they have to go back one or two years in math to catch up. What’s happening with fuzzy math is it’s destroying the public’s confidence in the public school system. No wonder charter and private schools are becoming more popular. Kids need to learn math in math class, not English. It’s not just Alpine’s problem though, Jordan and other school districts are adopting these programs because the state board has practically endorsed them by telling districts the criterion reference tests will match fuzzy math curriculum standards. Utah’s board has lowered the standards so far, these worthless programs can pass the test.
It’s not entirely the fault of our state board of education though. They were given a propaganda job and sold on these programs. People here in Utah seem to think they’re immune to propaganda jobs by outside organizations. In a year of searching I have yet to find one valid independent study that shows these programs are effective, but to the contrary I have found plentiful evidence both scientific and anecdotal that these programs are doing great harm. We need an educational Hippocratic oath to first do no harm.
A month ago, Alpine School District asked me to open mindedly review one study in particular that touted Investigations math. I did. Then I contacted people involved with the study. It turned out that the study was put together, administered, and published by an organization supported by Investigations math. Read the conclusion on Attachment 3. This is like accepting Phillip Morris’s word that smoking is safe because they’ve tested it. I challenged the Alpine School Board on January 10th to find me just one valid independent study by the end of January and I’m still waiting. There is no independent support for these programs and after 5 years of classroom use, thousands of children are leaving the system mathematically challenged forever.
The root of these problems is the Utah state math standards. Attachments 4-6 show a sampling of fourth grade problems from the UTIPS website that my kindergartener and second grader correctly solved. Which day had the lowest pizza sales? Pick the lowest number. FOURTH GRADE!!! Something is rotten in Utah and it needs cut out and thrown away. There is no time to lose because we will either spend the money now to fix the problem, or suffer the economic ravages of a generation of hundreds of thousands of Utahns that can’t do higher math. When Utah’s standards were created, mathematicians weren’t asked to participate because the educational establishment arrogantly thinks they know best how to teach children. What they’ve done is create a system where we will have no engineers or scientists to attract high-paying jobs in the future.
There is a solution to this problem. California went through 7 years of fuzzy math in the 90’s and watched their national scores go from one of the top states in the country, to 2nd lowest (Attachment 8). Governor Pete Wilson asked what was going on and the state board wisely got some mathematicians involved and they re-wrote the standards to make them strong and content filled. Fuzzy math couldn’t hold up to the standards and was thus banned from California and now California is getting back on track.
Interestingly, a professor at Cal State tracked the schools that dropped Mathland (similar to Investigations) and adopted Saxon math as a replacement. Attachment 7 shows the incredible improvements at both ends of the economic spectrum simply by switching to a curriculum based on actual research instead of feel good self-esteem nonsense. At the low socio-economic schools (SES), scores tripled and at the upper SES schools, scores increased over 20% in a period of four years. Children develop self-esteem by getting answers right, not being coddled about their strategies to find incorrect answers.
In both California and Michigan, studies showed that remedial math rates doubled for freshmen entering college that came from fuzzy math programs in high school. (See Attachment 8 for references)
Studies show that algebra is the number one predictor of college success across ALL majors, scientific or liberal arts (See Attachment 8). Pencil and paper mastery of multi-digit and fractional arithmetic in elementary school is an essential factor for success in algebra. Without it, you can’t do algebra. Without algebra, you can’t be an engineer or scientist and you are less likely to do well in college. Fuzzy math advocates dropping pencil and paper instruction. (See Attachment 9 for Quote)
Math is the only truly international language. 2+2 is always 4 everywhere you go because everyone can agree on it. Because of the dire need we face for raising the math bar in Utah, we need to impose change rather than trying to request those responsible to fix it. The state board is asleep at the wheel when it comes to math and they’ve veered off the road toward the cliff side.
This is not as drastic a change as some will portray it to be. It is simply raising the bar asking teachers to give our students more content at earlier ages in order to keep up with the rest of the world. Our children are smart enough to learn. We just need to teach them. Do the right thing and bring Utah to the highest educational standards. Don’t waste time and money reinventing the wheel. California has a fabulous framework, let’s use it! Bring it to Utah and lets raise our kids to know how to build a bridge into our future.
Investigations Math Menu
** Most important pages to read (all have value but if you will only read
a few pages make it these)
* Very important