Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why I quit teaching math at SFCC

[Note from Laurie Rogers: School is almost out. Many high school graduates will be eager to begin college. Most graduates will test into remedial math, however, and they will have to take one or more non-credit-bearing remedial math classes BEFORE they begin college-level math classes.

Knowledge is power, so I'm republishing with permission an article about remedial math at Spokane Falls Community College. It first appeared (edited) in the Jan. 19, 2011, edition of The Inlander.

The first time I spoke with Clint Thatcher, last fall, he told me that remedial math classes at SFCC had changed -- to something that sounded similar to the failed reform/constructivist approach we see in Spokane Public Schools. I wanted to confirm his story, so I called over to SFCC and talked to a woman in the math department. She seemed surprised that I would be critical of reform math. She said the problem at SFCC wasn't that students hadn't learned math in Spokane Public Schools; it was that they had forgotten it.

I drove to SFCC to look at the new textbook for remedial math. An instructor there loaned me his copy, and after I confirmed Clint's impression of it, that instructor and I chatted about this new approach. The instructor suggested (for example) using a hot air balloon model in place of the number line model. (You put sand in and numbers get bigger, and you take sand out and numbers get smaller.) I asked him where the zero was in his balloon model, where negatives and fractions were. He couldn't say. Why can't students just learn the number line? I asked. He didn't say.

Heads up, folks. Pay attention to what's being taught in any remedial math class -- in K-12 or in college. -- L.R.]


Why I Quit Teaching Math at SFCC

By Clint Thatcher, retired Air Force bombardier and retired math instructor

The time to quit the best job in the world is right before you get tired of it.

After spending 20 years in the B-52s and retiring from the U.S. Air Force, I spent the last 16 years as a math teacher. I can truly say that teaching mathematics was the greatest and most emotionally gratifying experience of my life. I certainly did not want to quit teaching but I was told to change my traditional approach to teaching math to a group-centered, intuitive and discovery approach. I refused to change my successful method and quit the job I loved so much.

I have been teaching developmental algebra for 12 years at Spokane Falls Community College and have had a 95% success rate with the students. Nine out of ten students that enroll at SFCC are placed into developmental math. It is sad to think that 90% of all entering college students didn’t retain enough algebra skills to pass the math assessment test to be placed into a college-level math class.

By the way, completing the developmental math series does not count toward a degree program and has no bearing on the student’s GPA. Developmental math classes are five-hour courses and cost the same as a college-level class. It takes some students three or four attempts to complete one class.

The dean of Math and Sciences (and a former teacher), stated that only one in three students completed the dev-math series. Failing to complete the series effectively ends the student’s college career. It is apparent that something must be done to change the current outcomes. Money was secured through the Title III program and was used to change the dev-math program at SFCC. The new program replaced the Math 91, 92, 99 series (which implemented the more traditional lecture approach) with Math 93, 94, 98. With a change in numbers also came a change in book and teaching methodology. All teachers had to go through professional training in order to teach the new series.

The new curriculum style is for students to collaborate in groups to find the best way to answer or solve a particular problem. This method reduces -- and for some teachers eliminates -- lecture altogether. It took brilliant men and women decades to formulate the laws of math that we have today. Now they want our students to formulate these same laws in a 50-minute class. This methodology is also the darling of the local and many other school districts, and we wonder why our children are graduating with minimal math skills.

Many of my students would be absolutely lost without a calculator. They have lost the basic skills of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing real numbers. They have essentially zero skills when it comes to dealing with fractions. We have strayed so far away from learning basic math skills that our college-bound students are entering a world that is totally foreign to them. So what does SFCC do? They change the math world to match what the students had in K-12.

I say we must first teach our students time-honored procedural mathematics that produces step-by-step methodology, and then introduce basic-skill problems that use these procedures. When their skill levels reach a certain proficiency, then introduce real-world problems where group collaboration can be of great benefit. The new method is to reverse the process and it is terribly inefficient. Students will not only become frustrated but will learn very little mathematics when it is all said and done.

I am enormously concerned for the future of our students to have the necessary math skills to fulfill the high-tech positions that have made this nation what it was. Oh, it is still a great nation, but we are importing a large portion of our high-tech workers to maintain our high status. We know there is a problem when we are rated 25th out of the top 30 industrial nations in math skills.

A Dec. 4, 2010, article by John Barber in The Spokesman-Review titled “Math ‘reform’ fails our kids” has spurred me to write this article, not only as a concerned teacher, but also to open up the eyes of parents who realize the system is failing their children. Where better, than in Spokane, to start a movement of parents and teachers to change back to the traditional and proven way of teaching mathematics?

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

This material is copyrighted.
For permission to republish or quote from this article, please write to Clint Thatcher at .

No comments:

Post a Comment