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ANALYSIS: Columbia Public School District's new math curriculum

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 | 7:30 p.m. CDT; updated 3:43 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Many in the Columbia Public School District — administrators, the school board, teachers, parents — have been talking about math lately.

Here's why:

Most of the discussion and debate centers on the differences between traditional and nontraditional approaches to math.

  • Traditional math focuses on the use of algorithms, or step-by-step sequences, such as long division to find answers.
  • Nontraditional math encourages students to use multiple strategies to solve problems, including real-world analogies in addition to traditional equations.

Many parents and community members have opposed the district's use of nontraditional math, saying it doesn't prepare kids or provide them basic understanding of math processes. Board member Ines Segert said the debate about math is framed as a two-option choice between concepts and procedures. Instead, she said she hoped Columbia could implement a math curriculum that combines both conceptual understanding and procedural competency.

A group of math professors, most of whom are from MU, sent a letter to Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education urging the alignment of Missouri's math standards with those in the National Mathematics Advisory Panel report. Columbia's math objectives, like all district's curricula, must align with state standards. Missouri's math standards are currently up for review.

Here's a breakdown of the district's math by grade level.

ELEMENTARY (Kindergarten through fifth grade)

Right now: Kindergarten through fifth-grade classes use Investigations in Number, Data, and Space. The curriculum was developed by TERC, a Cambridge, Mass., educational development and research organization. According to the Investigations Web site, the curriculum covers "fundamental ideas of number and operations, geometry, data, measurement and early algebra."

Up next: Linda Coutts, the elementary math coordinator, announced Sept. 24 the elementary math curriculum committee will no longer consider using Investigations. The school board approved documents Oct. 13 that outline math course descriptions, rationale and learning objectives. Before next fall, the committee will evaluate and select a set of curriculum materials, including textbooks and resources, to help teach the approved objectives.

Who makes decisions: Interim Superintendent Jim Ritter issued the directive to change the district's math focus. The elementary curriculum committee wrote and revised the approved math objectives. Segert and some parents have asked for the committee to be opened to new members with different viewpoints.

MIDDLE (grades six through eight)

Right now: Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes use the Connected Mathematics Project, developed at Michigan State University. According to its Web site, the curriculum aims to teach math students "vocabulary, forms of representation, materials, tools, techniques and intellectual methods."

Up next: A statement written by Ritter and posted on the district's Web site extended the curriculum change to grades six through eight. Ritter said his conversations with many people — not just with concerned parent groups — prompted the change from "reform" math to a more traditional approach. The secondary math curriculum committee will choose curriculum and materials this year, too, which will be implemented in the 2009-10 school year.

Who makes decisions: Chip Sharp is the district's secondary math coordinator. The secondary level comprises grades six through 12. The secondary math curriculum committee drafted the math document — which the board approved — that details course descriptions, rationale and learning objectives.

HIGH SCHOOL (grades nine through 12)

Right now: The district uses a six-year curriculum revision cycle. Math at the high school level is in the first of three years of monitoring and adjustment. As the current curricula are used throughout the school year, minor changes can be made if necessary, such as if state standards change. High school students can choose between traditional courses, such as algebra, or integrated math classes. Columbia's Integrated Math, created by McDougal Littell, uses hands-on applications to "help students make cross-curricular and real-life connections," according to the Web site.

Up next: High school math will be evaluated during the 2011-12 school year. After the change in approach for kindergarten through eighth grades, Ritter said it's likely that students in grades nine through 12 will still able be to choose the traditional or integrated track.

Who makes decisions: A secondary math task force recommended to the school board in May 2007 that a math advisory board be formed. Coutts and Sharp chose 36 teachers, professors, parents and other community members to serve on the Mathematics Community Advisory Committee. To form the committee, Coutts and Sharp, the district's math coordinators, called school principals to ask teachers to serve; recruited faculty from Stephens and Columbia colleges and MU's education department and recruited community members, including business leaders and parents.


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