Praising math successes part of fostering big change

Published in The News Tribune, April 24, 2013.

There’s an increasing drumbeat around making sure all high school students graduate with solid math skills.

You could hear it in News Tribune articles this month. One (“Math problems are a problem for job-seekers, employers say,”, 4-4) described how some local employers require their employees to have a basic grasp of math, but were finding that most high school graduates did not.

In another we learned that 16,000 of the state’s high school seniors have yet to pass the state math test, and thus may not graduate (“Thousands might not graduate because of WA math test,” 4-15).

It so happens that between the publication of these two articles, I found myself in Yakima attending the Washington State Math Council’s annual State Mathematics Contests. There, bright-eyed students from 38 high schools across the state gathered, sporting pen, paper and calculator at the ready. Teams of them took on their competitors, sweating it out in grueling mental battles.

As a spectator, I can’t say this competition was particularly riveting. But it was, nonetheless, impressive. Hour after hour, hundreds of teenagers could be observed in deep concentration, hunched over their calculators while puzzling over some problem they’d been handed. If you think video games have destroyed youth’s ability to concentrate, just attend these math contests. It will make you think twice about our future.

The point of this column is not to tell you how great it was to watch these students spend a day tackling math problems. It’s about the adults – both those present, and those not.

This state math contest and the organization that supports it – the Washington State Mathematics Council (WSMC) – is run by dozens of dedicated volunteers. The event was one of those feel-good ones with volunteers bound together by their common passion for math education.

As someone who has done little to contribute to the WSMC or the events it plans – other than make sure my son is on some 6 a.m. bus to wherever – I applaud the efforts of all those volunteers. I wish that everyone else would too: Without the support of public funds, those volunteers are helping to develop our future capacity to tackle difficult problems.

But what struck me about this event was that despite the rhetoric we hear over the importance of math education, this state competition had all the signs of a non-event. The contest was held at an uninspiring (yet generously donated) Eisenhower High School, staffed by volunteers, run on a shoestring budget and financed by activities such as students’ candy sales.

There was nothing about the event to suggest that anyone except those present valued it, or that the volunteers who staffed it should be commended. Aside from parents, volunteers, and some remarkably dedicated teachers, few adults were present. The superintendent of public instruction was not there. Nor was the governor. No district superintendent was present.

Microsoft was absent. No representative of the University of Washington or Washington State University was there. I doubt any journalist covered the event. In fact, I don’t believe a single elected politician or education official was present in Yakima that day.

I wonder how many know that students from University Place’s Curtis High walked away with two of the contests’ five first-places? (See box)

Maybe the public’s support is invisible. But even that didn’t seem to be the case. My son’s math coach is probably typical. As he has for years, Mr. Yuong devoted hours upon hours of his free time to coaching his kids, buying them meals and then escorting them to weekend math competitions such as this one. For that, the district pays him $300 a year, his school consigning trophies his students win to his classroom.

Read the paper or listen to public officials, and you’ll hear about big changes under discussion to address the shortcomings our kids have when it comes to math skills. There’s a new Common Core curriculum that promises more learning. The state Legislature is guaranteeing that schools will have many more dollars in the coming years.

But until we do the small things right, such as celebrating the math skills our students do have, and recognizing and rewarding those who are responsible, getting the big things right is a lot to ask.

Local winners

Among first-place winners at the State Mathematics contests were Curtis High School students Nicolas Basil, Rachel Levenseller, Timothy Lee, Ashwin Prakash, Micah Choi and Soomin Park for team project and Prakash for topical individual problem.

Read the article