Newsletter #137    WaToToM # 10


WaToToM the Tenth has come and gone, though I fondly hope that its impact on those of us who took part in it is just beginning. I think the description of it needs to be preceded by a definition for the sake of those who are new to the newsletter mailing list: WaToToM stands for Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics. We're more a community than an organization, since our only formal activity is to get together once a year at the Sleeping Lady Conference Center in Leavenworth, but we are a highly representative and interested community. On the WaToToM mailing list, which consists of people who either have attended one or more gatherings or would like to do so, we have representatives of all of the universities run by the state, many of its community colleges and several private universities. Through those gatherings (ten of them now) and intermittent flurries of e-mails between them we have found a clear, strong core of common beliefs. A few years ago we began giving voice to those beliefs in position papers and letters sent to various decision-making agencies in the state's education system. At first it felt like dropping pebbles into a black hole, but after a time we began to get echoes in the form of requests to testify before the Professional Educators Standards Board, or to supply members for sundry working committees. Eventually it became clear that we now genuinely have a voice in the state's mathematics education. It follows that our current task is to use that voice carefully and well.
At our annual gatherings (which by what the French would call abuse of language we also call WaToToMs) the content has gradually evolved. In the initial period the major objective was getting acquainted -- prior to WaToToM #1 there had been absolutely no communication among the many institutions in the state where future teachers learn their mathematics. Once that settled in, we began to focus more on what things we felt were needed and where it would be worthwhile spending our energy. This went particularly well the times when we had representation from OSPI (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.) This year, partly owing to the state of the state itself, our concerns have progressed from the relatively abstract (better educated teachers, especially at the elementary level) to the far more concrete. Bev Neitzel and Karrin Lewis, both from OSPI, were there and willing to be pelted with questions. They even filled in some framework for us, but I'll get to that a bit later.
A core element of our gatherings has always been a Saturday afternoon session led by a panel of K-12 teachers. Since we are in college or university classrooms preparing our students to go be in the very different classrooms of public schools we want to make sure we stay grounded and in touch. Most years we have had rich and lively discussions that have influenced us all. The Saturday morning discussions have also been lively (if there's one truly dependable element of WaToToM it's good conversation of every sort!) but with a wide variety of discussion-launchers. This year there is so much interesting stuff going on that involves teachers that we finally broke out of the mold: both the morning and the afternoon sessions were launched by teachers, this time ones at the heart of two very different projects.
The morning session was about a project now underway at Garfield High School in Seattle. Actually, it's a composition of so many different projects that I can't possibly do it justice. One of them is a branch of the national PCMI (Park City Math Institute) that Jim King has helped develop for eons. That part involves getting a team of teachers at a high school to agree to work together toward some specified goal. Another major part is that Lani Horn in the College of Education has been taking her secondary math methods students to observe and discuss the classes in question, and they are feeling far better connected to their future world. There are other bits, too, involving a video club (videotapes of each other teaching -- not the film of the week!) and... I've lost track. Lani and Jim are very creative, especially as a team! In any case, the teachers who came to WaToToM were invited on the basis of the first bit: Garfield teachers opted to use the support given them to revamp the courses for students coming in unready for high school mathematics. There had been two courses, a slow one and another going half that fast, and the pass rates were abysmal -- an unpleasant state for the teachers and students alike. The teachers' first decision was to eliminate the half-speed class altogether, with it's self-fulfilling message of "We really don't think you can do this." They then opted to get training in the Interactive Math Project -- one of the NSF curricula -- and use it. Results so far are spectacular -- students involved and participating and working on standard deviation at the point in the year where a year before they would have been cringing before a computation that had already defeated them. Furthermore, the pass rate doubled, and highly preliminary evidence indicates that they are doing well in the courses into which they were passed. We await with baited breath the result of their WASL tests. So IMP was what I thought would be the major feature of what the two teachers (both named Karen--K. Gunn and K.O'Connell) talked about. As it turned out, they had a different focus, to the fascination of all concerned: Another thing that Lani has brought into the project is the use of Complex Instruction, which can be thought of as the Cadillac of group work. It has a very specific structure, and goes after academic progress by way of a social objective of eliminating the issues of status that lock students into one particular way of functioning and prevent many from achieving what they are capable of. That one kicked up a lot of really good conversation.
The afternoon session had a different flavor. The pair of teachers featured were brought in by Project TIME, which is an off-shoot of TMP. The T in both of them is for "Transition", and the focus is on the transition from high school to college. TMP has, over the past few years developed a set of college readiness standards (you can find them at ) and is now working on making sure they don't gather dust on people's shelves (or their hard drives). TIME, another great Green River Community College endeavor, is doing that in a variety of ways. The one our teachers told us about is a senior math course with a dual mandate: taking care of the students that race ahead and finish calculus as juniors and of those who are hoping to go to college but are mathematically shaky. It's a well-attested fact that a mathless senior year is damaging to the former and catastrophic to the latter. Kim Fergus from Sumner High School wowed us first with a glimpse of what it is like to teach in a small and rather isolated school and how much someone with her bright energy can contribute, and then with her joy at discovering that instead of working on her own on the course she had been developing she could join with others. Her colleague Robin Washam, who coaches at a collection of schools, gave us more of an overview -- a nice balance!
Saturday evenings are always to devoted to a "What are you guys up to?" session. The invariance of the structure does not in any way produce ennui, because there is always a mind-boggling array of new stuff added to the "I told you about that last year" mentions. With 36 of us there representing 16 (or thereabouts) different universities and colleges and school organizations or projects we had a really exciting array.
Sunday morning is when the rubber hits the road, or when we flex our collective muscle, or ... choose your own cliche. This one was particularly rousingly launched by Bev Neitzel and Karrin Lewis, both of whom work on the mathematics front at OSPI (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction). Bev started us off with a description of the process behind the WASL. First she took us through the test questions, which are written by teachers, then inspected, re-written, re-inspected, formatted, and gone over with a fine-tooth comb by a large and varied collection of people and committees. Then she described the grading process, which many people wonder about. It is too elaborate for a concise description, but the key thing is that for the non-multiple choice questions teams of teachers volunteer, are tested for consistency, receive training, are re-tested for consistency, and then grade for many hours, during which a random sample of their graded problems are again checked for consistency. A massive effort -- why do it? Because well over a decade ago the state, in its EALRs (Essential Academic Learning Requirements), set itself the goal of teaching all children not just to calculate, but to reason and communicate about mathematics. The former can be assessed on a computer-graded test, but the latter can't. Given that what is taught depends on what is going to be tested, not on a theoretical goal, there is no real alternative to something along these lines.
This and the rest of what Bev and Karrin had to say fascinated everybody, and we could have gone on peppering them with questions for a very long time, but deadlines began to loom. With regret, I broke in with the message Bev and Karrin are not permitted to give. All of what they had been describing, and all of what we have been pouring our energy into preparing teachers for is under threat. A group called "Where's the Math" is doing its level best to persuade the legislature to throw out the EALRs in favor of standards that mandate exactly what skills each child is to master at which grade, and to replace the WASL with something like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. It is a forceful and energetic group, whose lobbying skills are modeled on those of the highly effective Mathematically Correct group. We need to write to legislators (our own and those on education committees). Even more importantly, we need to ask some of the many teachers and parents who like what is going on to write and let legislators know that they do and why they do. If legislators hear only the repeated negative messages of the highly organized Where's the Mathers they will have no way of knowing that WtM doesn't represent the whole population.
My trumpeted call to action was ably seconded by a number of people who have been watching recent developments (even Bev and Karrin were legally permitted to smile), and I fondly hope it will bear some fruit. It was followed by a slightly less resounding call to lunch, followed, with sadness, by a great many good-byes -- and we scattered across the state until next year's WaToToM.

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