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District decides to go back to traditional math

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 | 10:39 p.m. CDT; updated 10:44 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 24, 2008

COLUMBIA — As early as next fall, students in Columbia's elementary classrooms will learn math with a traditional approach. After years of debate and discussion about the district's math curriculum, the "investigations" program won't be considered the district's everyday math program anymore. The curriculum was under review as part of the district's six-year curriculum revision cycle.

Linda Coutts, the district's elementary math coordinator, told math curriculum committee members that the decision came from Interim Superintendent Jim Ritter. He met with Coutts and secondary math coordinator Chip Sharp on Sept. 9 and said he was concerned that the district's math issues had divided the community.

Discussion about the district's math programs has been ongoing for months, if not years. Some parents feel strongly that the district's nontraditional approach leaves  students unprepared for standardized tests or college.

During the meeting, the curriculum committee made changes to the math curriculum standards document, which has been revised several times. The revised standards document will be presented to the Columbia School Board for approval at its meeting Oct. 13. If approved, the curriculum would be implemented no earlier than next fall.

Curriculum committee members could decide if they wanted to stay on the committee, but Coutts urged them not to decide immediately. She said she understands the committee members could experience a range of emotions.

Sally Beth Lyon, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the decision didn't mean the committee had failed.

"This isn't an ending, this isn't a retreat, this is a change in direction," Lyon said. "The decision to move in a more traditional direction is in no way a devaluation of your perspectives, knowledge and experience."

She didn't want committee members to feel like the change was winning or losing.

"It's the right thing for the kids and for the community to figure out how to find a way that is more clear," she said.

The elementary and secondary math curriculum committees drafted the standards, which set objectives for grade levels. Revisions were made with feedback from the 36-person Mathematics Community Advisory Committee, comprised of business leaders, teachers, administrators, university professors, parents and one student.

The selection process that formed these committees has been a source of controversy. Board members Tom Rose and Ines Segert have questioned the way the district's various committees are formed.

Segert said she thinks the committees should be made up of members with different viewpoints. She hoped new members would be added to the curriculum committee, but acknowledged there isn't time.

Rose said he wants to see the board assist in the process of committee member selection in the future, or at least be more aware of the people selected to serve on committees. He noted that many committees are comprised mostly of district employees.

"I'd like to make them a little broader in scope," he said.

Because board members have varying levels of involvement in the community, he said board members might have the ability to recommend people outside the district for committee service.

To form the math curriculum committee, Coutts and Sharp sent requests to school principals, asking teachers to volunteer. A call went to MU's education department, as well as Columbia and Stephens colleges for representatives. There is also a general form for community members to submit on the public schools's Web site to volunteer for committee service.

Even so, the members of the committees don't represent all of Columbia.

Dale Mitchell, a West Boulevard Elementary School teacher, said it's important to involve parents in the committee's process, including material selection, because parents are the ones working with their students at home.

She also said the committee needs diversity. She pointed out that she was the only African-American in the room and said the committee is largely comprised of upper-middle class members, which doesn't reflect the entire community.

"We need a good cross-section of our community, with not so much divisiveness," Mitchell said.

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