Monday, April 29, 2013

A Nice Media Mention

The popular international math education site Maths Insider just published an article on "8 Fascinating Podcasts to Spark a Love of Math in Your Teen", and my podcast, Math Mutation, was one of the 8 chosen.   Check out the article at .  

And of course, check out Math Mutation at, if you haven't done that yet!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Meet & Greet At Cruise In Thurs 4/25

Hi everyone--  I've scheduled a "meet & greet" event this Thursday, 4/25, 6-8 pm, at Cruise In Country Diner at the corner of River Rd & Farmington.   If you have issues or concerns you want to discuss, or just want to meet me in person before voting for me, come join me on Thursday!

If you're a Facebook user, here is the Facebook event:

(BTW-- admission is free, though you do have to pay for your own food. But if you haven't eaten at Cruise In yet-- these are the best burgers in the Portland area, even if you don't like me you won't regret coming.  :-)  )

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reservations About A New "Common Core" Math Program

To begin with: yes, my last blog post was an April Fools joke! I guess I shouldn't be surprised that some people thought I was serious-- in a district that experiments with "balanced grading"  and "critical race theory", it can sometimes be hard to distinguish spoof from reality.  But rest assured, when I am on the school board, your children will not be deprived of bathrooms.

More seriously, this week's Curriculum Committee meeting consisted of a report-out on the adoption plans for the new middle school math curriculum. This was the product of a 2-year effort by a panel of teachers & administrators, who clearly put a lot of time and effort into reviewing the various choices and choosing a suitable replacement program. The one chosen was called Core Connections College Prep Mathematics (CPM); you can read lots of details at their website, . The committee was asked to listen to the report and then vote on recommending it to the school board.
Coming into this meeting, I had a lot of concerns. This was the first time HSD middle school math would be compliant with the Common Core, a new national set of standards that has been widely criticized for providing watered-down or fuzzy math, and teaching kids to talk about math problems rather than actually solving them. Some aspects of the common core math program seem somewhat positive: an attention to recognizing structures, using appropriate tools and mathematical models, and looking for alternate solutions to problems. But other aspects are more disturbing, such as emphasis on group work, answering questions with subjective verbose explanations instead of clear answers, and failure to drill traditional math skills.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the teachers had good answers for many of my concerns: I have summarized my recollection of the major Q&As below.
  • Are we subjecting our kids to an unproven new educational fad? - No. While the Common Core is quite new, the CPM program actually dates back over 20 years, and has been continually taught and refined over that time.
  • Will the students really learn traditional math skills by going through this program, or just learn to BS their way through math discussions? The page has an impressive array of studies showing that, based on standardized tests based on traditional math, students in their program equal or exceed similar groups of students who went through traditional programs. And they also show in some cases that students who went through the CPM programs are more likely to go on to higher-level math classes.
  • Will the group work mean that my child is graded for other children's work? The teachers clarified that while the classwork will largely consist of students working together to solve problems, 80% of a student's grade will be determined by individual assessments. The remainder of the grade will be based on observed participation and on individual homework.
  • Will students not have to do math homework anymore? They will have regular homework exercises, reinforcing the principles learned in class.
  • How will parents be able to understand what their child is learning, if they were educated in a traditional math program? There was a very nice answer to this one: the CPM program publishes a "Parents' Guide" to accompany each textbook, to help parents guide their children through that lesson's homework assignment. The CPM website further offers supplementary podcasts with each lesson, so parents can get a full context of what their child was learning in school.
  • I heard that under Common Core, 8th graders no longer learn algebra. Will the TAG students be forced to slow down & sync with the group, instead of moving on to advanced math early? No! The CPM classes will have accelerated options, just like current classes do. And many of the concepts formerly in 9th-10th grade algebra are now moved to middle school, so the students will have a solid grounding for higher math.
Most of the committee voted to accept the report and recommend that the school board approve the adoption. However, I abstained from this vote, as I did not believe it appropriate to hold such a vote after solely hearing an advocacy presentation and not having a chance to research other points of view, or further discuss and deliberate out of the presence of the advocates.   After the meeting, I did some online research and found some disturbing information about the CPM program. I think the board should consider the following areas of concern when deciding whether to go forward with this curriculum:
  • Will students not have true math tests anymore? Apparently students will be responsible for an individual "closure activity" at the end of each unit. I am a quite worried about this one, as it sounds a bit fuzzy in comparison to a real math test. See examples at this website:  . While the closure activities (summarizing what you learned, drawing concept maps, etc) sound like nice reinforcement, I don't think they could possibly substitute for traditional tests in order to ensure that basic skills are mastered.
  • Is there real evidence that CPM students do equally well to non-CPM students on objective, nationally standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, etc? This seems to be missing from the many studies at
  • Will there be solid evidence that students are learning standard algorithms: long division, solving quadratic equations, etc? Standard algorithms, discovered historically after centuries of development and reasoning, are a core tool in our mathematical toolkit. If students move on to higher education knowing they can try 'alternative approaches' and don't have to quickly solve problems of known, structured types, they will be at a severe handicap in math, science, and engineering classes.
  • What about the strong CPM critiques from math and science professionals? There are some serious critiques of CPM available with a quick web search. These all seem to date from 10-15 years ago, so maybe the program has changed since then to fix the issues described-- but we need a clear statement that the adoption team was aware of these critiques, and has answers to the concerns within.

So, I would recommend to the school board that if we choose to adopt this new program, it would be with the following provisions:
  • The addition of periodic tests that measure individual proficiency in the traditional core algorithms that have theoretically been taught as a 'side effect' of the creative group work. Creative problem-solving and verbal reasoning are great-- but we have to make sure we are not discarding the real math.  
  • Detailed tracking of pre-CPM vs post-CPM scores on the PSAT, SAT, and similar objective tests. We need real yardsticks for comparison. Because the Common Core comes with its own assessment types, it will be very difficult to compare students who learned under the old and new curricula.
  • Detailed refutations of the CPM critiques linked above. We need solid evidence that these concerns have been addressed in the latest versions of the curriculum.

Monday, April 1, 2013

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

I posted this idea during my last campaign, but somehow the Hillsboro School District has failed to implement it.  So I'm bringing it up again; tell me what you think.

How many times have we seen this situation in a classroom: the teacher is in the middle of a brilliant lesson, the students are all enraptured, education is flowering in the truest sense, and suddenly it is all ruined by an irrelevant interruption.   A hand is raised in the middle of the room, begging, "Can I have a bathroom pass?"

In addition to interrupting class at random times, this is the root of a number of issues in our schools.   The restrooms have been shown to be central locations for time wasting, bullying, rule breaking, and discrimination against transgender students.  Attempts to solve this problem by limiting availability of bathroom passes, or requiring good behavior from students, simply fail to address the core issues.

Let me ask the obvious question: Why are there bathrooms in our schools at all?   They serve no educational purpose, take up space, and are costly in terms of both maintenance and order.  Every bathroom in the Hillsboro school system should have all its toilets and sinks removed, and the rooms should be re-purposed as classrooms. Think about the benefits:
  • Schools will gain additional classrooms in what is now wasted space, increasing capacity.
  • Custodial costs will go down, as janitors have significantly fewer cleaning tasks.
  • Students will learn the valuable techniques of self-control.
It's about time we leave the self-indulgent school designs of the 20th century behind, and fully utilize our schools' spaces for their intended purpose, education.