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UPDATE: Math curriculum change could extend to secondary level

Thursday, September 25, 2008 | 9:13 p.m. CDT; updated 11:51 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 3, 2008

COLUMBIA — Wednesday's announcement to switch to traditional math in Columbia's elementary schools might extend to the middle and junior high schools.

Though it hasn't been decided officially, Interim Superintendent Jim Ritter said all grade levels will likely use a traditional approach, but students in grades nine through 12 could be able to choose the traditional or nontraditional route.

The nontraditional curricula are known as "investigations" at the elementary level, "connected math" in grades six through eight and "integrated math" in high school.

Ritter heard the overwhelming public criticism of nontraditional math and — as part of his effort to restore community trust in the district — he acted.

"I think maybe the general public didn't feel we were listening," he said. "The vast majority of community members support a more traditional approach, and that's why I gave that direction."

Though math coordinators and administrators tried to explain to the community that they felt nontraditional math worked best, Ritter said the community wanted district administrators to go in a different direction.

"I've had the advantage of being out in the community, talking to regular people who have regular kids, not just the hard-core group and mathematicians," Ritter said.

He said the math issue prompted plenty of community conversation, even before he took over in August.

"This was not a change on a whim," he said. "I had significant input, both solicited and unsolicited."

A math curriculum committee has worked for months to draft and revise elementary grade-level objectives. Specific curricula will be chosen later.

There has been continued discussion of which curriculum works best for kids:

• a traditional approach that focuses on algorithms, such as long division, or

• nontraditional math that uses multiple strategies, including real-world analogies, to solve math problems.

He said teachers should have the flexibility to use an array of teaching strategies to suit individual students within the traditional curriculum.

"We want an eclectic approach to teaching math," he said.

Curriculum committee members will pick the books and materials to teach the new approach this year, and implementation will start next fall.

Some Columbia Public School Board members and parents agree this is the first step in a long process that will take years.

Math was a big issue in board member Ines Segert's election campaign in April. She opposes the nontraditional math curricula because she doesn't feel it adequately prepares students. Segert was surprised and pleased with Wednesday's announcement.

"I thought, OK, now the hard work is really going to start," she said. "Our kids are about a year or two behind where kids learning traditional math are. We have to bring them up to speed. We have to bring our teachers up to speed."

The switch in focus isn't a magic bullet to fix the district's problems, either, she said.

"We can't change just textbooks. It's going to take some work to get there," Segert said. "When we get caught up, then we'll continue to see progress."

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