Carol Atkinson holds a stopwatch as the second-graders in her room fish pencils from their desks, a worksheet of 25 addition problems in front of them.

"Ready, set, start," Atkinson says, and they're off. For the next three minutes, students work steadily and silently while Atkinson watches the time.

Later, the North Beach Elementary room buzzes with conversation as students work with small, brightly colored blocks for a math lesson on area. But the timed exercise, which they do every morning, is the kind of practice that some argue is too rare in Washington classrooms.

One of their solutions to the state's math problems: Bring back more drills.

"I know people hate the 'drill and kill,' but I call it skill-building," said M.J. McDermott, a North Beach parent and meteorologist for KCPQ-TV. "You kind of have to get through the work to get the fluency."

Everyone agrees students need to learn the basics in math. The influential National Council of Teachers of Mathematics reinforced that view last month by repeating what its leaders say they've always said: Fourth-graders should multiply whole numbers fluently. Second-graders should quickly recall the sum of two plus five.

But there are strong disagreements over how those skills should be taught and whether some schools and teachers, misunderstanding recommendations the council made in 1980, spend too much time exploring the ideas in math and too little time practicing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

In Seattle, that debate erupted recently as members of a committee discussed what new math textbooks Seattle should buy for its elementary and high schools, a decision that hasn't yet been made.

A new statewide group called Where's the Math? is loudly pushing for more schools to do what North Beach does, and for the state to rewrite its math standards as California did when parents and math professors raised similar concerns there.

Since the group put up its Web site in January, more than 500 people have joined its mailing list, said its director, Shalimar Backman. Backman says she's heard from parents whose students haven't learned how to do long division and from two teachers in Vancouver, Wash., who say students arrive in high schools without knowing their times tables cold.

The basics debate is far from the only issue in math instruction. In Washington in particular, low math scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) have everyone from Gov. Christine Gregoire on down looking hard at why students do so poorly. Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson recently said she would consider delaying the requirement that students pass the math section of the WASL to graduate.

There are concerns about how well teachers — especially in elementary schools — understand math, whether students should be required to take more than two years to graduate from high school and whether U.S. schools skip around too much or cover too much math in too little depth. Critics have said the U.S. math curriculum is "a mile wide and an inch deep."

The latter was what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics intended to address with its new report, "Curriculum Focal Points," which lists three key topics that should be taught deeply and well each year, from preschool through eighth grade.

Source: Seattle Times