School district creates committee to comment on math curriculum

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 | 8:38 p.m. CST; updated 11:22 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Public School District has asked 34 community members to comment in two upcoming committee meetings on the way the district teaches math. The district has invited these Columbia residents to advise the school district about the K-12 math curriculum. Those people will meet as the Mathematics Community Advisory Committee to “provide a forum for ongoing two-way communication among Columbia Public Schools and its constituents regarding mathematics education,” the district said.

Secondary Mathematics Coordinator Chip Sharp, Primary Mathematics Coordinator Linda Coutts and Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon formed the committee. Sharp said the new committee is a result of a recommendation from last year’s Secondary Mathematics Taskforce. In May 2007 the task force recommended that Columbia Public Schools “improve communication with CPS stakeholders.”

Two members of this new committee and all three of its organizers were part of that task force last year.

There has been an ongoing debate about which approach to math is the right one. There are two approaches available in the district. The newest approach, Integrated Math, is a system where teachers encourage students to solve math problems by focusing on context and situations rather than formulas. The other, which is how most parents were taught, is algebraic math. That system is based on memorization and a step-by-step process. Columbia Public Schools offers both approaches to students.

The committee is made up of parents, teachers, administrators, business leaders, community members and MU professors. The district selected this range of people so that all stakeholders could be represented, Sharp said.

Lex Akers, associate dean of the MU College of Engineering, said he was selected for the committee based on his past work with math issues. He said that if students come to college knowing the algebraic approach, they will be prepared for college math courses.

“The students need a strong background in algebra,” he said. “They need to be competent and confident in basic mathematics.”

Associate Professor of Chemistry Susan Lever applied on the district’s Web site and was accepted to be a part of the committee. She said she will bring the perspective of what math concepts chemistry college professors expect students to be proficient in. Tuesday morning, Lever sent out a survey to about 17 other MU chemistry professors asking what her “colleagues believe students need to do well in chemistry.” As a committee member, Lever said she will try to be objective.

“I don’t have an agenda,” she said.

Russel Boulevard Elementary Principal Ed Schumacher recommended MU Professor Walter Gassmann to be a part of the committee. Gassmann has three children in Columbia schools. Two attend Russel, and one attends West Junior High School. That child opted for the non-integrated math track. Like Lever, Gassmann said he has no opinion yet about how students should be taught math.

“I think it depends very much on the personality of the student and the quality of the teacher as well,” he said. “I think you can do a good job and a bad job with either method.”

Ines Segert, School Board candidate and Instruction Assistant Professor of Psychology at MU, applied to be part of the committee but was not accepted. In an e-mail, Segert said she was glad that the committee included members who agreed and disagreed with the way the district currently teaches math.

“Because of public outcry, I think they finally had to include some critics,” she said.

Columbia Parents For Real Math founder Michelle Pruitt was also selected for the committee but was unavailable Tuesday for comment.

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