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Education Reporter

Court Rules For Fuzzy Math
The Discovery series of math textbooks, based on "fuzzy" or "discovery" principles, started appearing in classrooms across the nation in 2007. By the time the school board in liberal Seattle was considering adopting the series for high school students, enough parents in the area were aware of its failures to strongly oppose it.

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The Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors voted 4-3 to adopt the series anyway, despite strong parental objections and testimony that the texts were "unsound" from mathematicians working for the State Board of Education.

The books are based on "discovery" or "reform" math that replaces learning basic skills such as addition, multiplication, and division with class discussion, group projects, object manipulation, "exploration," and heavy use of calculators. The theory behind this approach is that kids need to "discover" the age-old principles of math for themselves in order to master and apply them effectively.

Dr. Jack Lee, a well-known professor at the University of Washington, was one of numerous mathematicians who strongly urged the Seattle district not to adopt the Discovery series. Regarding the Discovering Algebra text, he wrote, "these books have far too much verbiage for students to read, and too little in the way of clearly stated mathematical principles. Definitions, computational algorithms, and formulas seem to be stated vaguely when they are stated at all." Lee also said the Discovering Geometry text represented a "highly risky and experimental approach to teaching" that "while well-intentioned, is unlikely to have the desired effect."

Another University of Washington professor, Cliff Mass, joined with a retired math teacher and a parent in filing suit to overturn the school board's decision. Mass wrote on his blog that discovery math is "essentially dumbed down for 'equity' reasons," and argued that the curriculum would widen the achievement gap between middle-class and underprivileged students (cliffmass.blogspot.com, 1-23-10).

Seattle Public Schools have actually been using discovery math at elementary, middle and high schools for several years. Mass offered evidence that discovery math is hampering student achievement in the form of a chart showing the five-year average pass rate on the state math exam for various groups of students. Blacks and low-income students in particular showed alarming declines in pass rates between the 4th and 10th grades, and whites also suffered significant declines.

Such evidence persuaded King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector to rule in February 2011 that the board's decision to adopt the Discovery series was "arbitrary and capricious," but the victory was short-lived.

In March, a Washington State Court of Appeals unanimously overturned her decision, not because they found "fuzzy math" superior, but because they did not find the textbook selection so unreasonable as to warrant court intervention. (The Seattle Times, 3-28-11 and 5-29-09; Seattlepi.com, 2-3-10)

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