Adding it up

District works to spark
student interest in math
Thursday, October 30, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:03 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Numbers are everywhere, and the Columbia Public School District is working to make sure its students learn to understand them.

Even Dana Dillon’s fifth-grade pupils at Benton Elementary School can cite examples of math in their daily lives. Educators say that a sound understanding of basic math skills is necessary for adult success.

“Technology has pushed us to where our need for ‘basics’ includes more than what we did (as students),” said Chip Sharp, math coordinator for the district’s grades six through 12 and who has been part of the implementation process. “

Students need to know and study more. They can’t just memorize — our students need to be able to learn and understand math in deeper, richer ways.”

The National Science Foundation agrees. The foundation awarded MU a $10 million grant, which will fund a new mathematics research center scheduled to open in January. The Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum, to be housed in Townsend Hall, will look at mathematics textbooks and how they are used in Columbia schools.

Researchers at the center will conduct a five-year study with Columbia public schools to better understand the role of textbooks and to identify critical features of mathematics curriculum — for example, organization and content of textbooks — that help students learn. The center will work with the schools to compile research on textbooks and test development strategies.

Research shows that American students are average at math when compared to other students around the world. According to a 1999 report, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which tested eighth-graders in 38 countries, American pupils ranked 19th.

A similar study is being conducted this year.

In light of these findings, researchers are focusing on how to improve the way American students are taught mathematics. Barbara Reys, professor of mathematics education and director of the center, said one problem with how math is taught is the lack of a national curriculum. Instead of following one consistent program, each state develops its own curriculum, a system that can hinder the learning of children who move around the country.

“In Japan and most other industrialized countries, there is a national math curriculum, so it is very clear to teachers what mathematics should be focused on in the fourth grade, the fifth grade, etc.,” Reys said.

Dillon said a national mathematics curriculum ideally would be more effective, especially for students whose families move while they are learning basic math skills. But she said she thinks it would be hard to implement.

“There are many things that have to be in place to implement a curriculum smoothly just in one district,” she said. “Doing so nationwide could be extremely difficult.”

The Columbia schools began implementing a new districtwide mathematics curriculum three years ago. The program, “Investigations in Number, Data and Space,” was introduced for kindergarten through second grade in 2000 and for the third grade in 2001. This year, the district implemented the curriculum for fourth and fifth grades.

“Investigations” is different from traditional math, Sharp said, because besides just solving problems, students are also asked to think about how they are actually solving them.

“It’s not just a collection of activities, but there is a purpose for the learning,” Sharp said, who coordinates mathematics for grades six through 12 and has been a part of the implementation process. “Part of the difference is that the context is really driving a deeper level of understanding, not just to do the processes but how to apply them and how to use them in other situations, and that is very important.”

Dillon uses this technique in her classroom. After her students have solved problems, they are asked to then discuss with each other why they think their answers are right.

Kaylona Vinyard, a pupil in Dillon’s class at Benton, said she likes “investigations” because she likes using colored blocks, tiles and polygons to help her better understand problems.

“I like moving in math,” fifth-grader Tanail Coleman said about the hands-on approach. “It (‘investigations’) has good adventures in it and it is fun. It is very interesting to investigate and find out the answers to the problems.”

Dillon also likes the curriculum because it is hands-on — there are a lot of math games, and it gives the students control of their learning, she said.

“It is by far the best thing that I’ve ever seen,” said Dillon, who has taught math using “investigations” for four years. “It most closely matches the kinds of things I remember thinking in graduate school like, ‘This is the way I want to teach math.’ So I was really excited when I got my own classroom and that was the kind of math that we were doing.”

There is, however, another problem with Missouri’s math system, being that high school students are only required to take math for two years, Reys said.

“If they don’t feel that they are good at math, or they don’t like to study mathematics, students in their junior year decide that they aren’t going to study mathematics,” she said. “Right now, not enough students are continuing to study mathematics, and we think that is partly because it is a subject that they don’t see as interesting or relevant to what they are doing.”

However, Sharp said Columbia public schools have had a high number of students continuing to take math in 11th and 12th grades. Last year, more than 80 percent took more math than required. Part of the reason high school students are taking more math is because some universities require more than two high school math credits for admittance, he said.

Linda Coutts, math coordinator for kindergarten through fifth grade, agrees that additional requirements have had a slight effect on the increase of students enrolling in math, but she thinks more students are taking additional math courses out of necessity.

“Mathematics is being seen as something that is very important,” Coutts said. “It is something that people need because we as a society are asking people to do more with mathematics than we have before.”

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