Preis says input on math is welcome

Tuesday, April 10, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:59 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Some Columbia parents are so concerned with the math curriculum in the public schools that they have formed a group to oppose the district’s current nontraditional methods of math instruction. That’s OK by district administrators and school board members.

“I think it’s fantastic that they (the parents) are speaking out and advocating for their children,” said Darin Preis, the new school board vice president. “I’ve heard from a lot of parents for whom I have a great deal of respect, and I can see they have a great argument.”

Michelle Pruitt, a mother of three children in the district, said she recently formed the group Columbia Parents for Real Math after seeing her third-grader struggle with her math homework and her son score lower than she had expected on standardized tests.

Pruitt presented school board members with data she had collected from Chip Sharp, district coordinator for math in grades six through 12, during public comment at the school board meeting Monday night. Pruitt said the data, consisting of seventh grade students’ test scores on the Iowa Algebra Aptitude Test showed a “statistically significant difference” between scores earned from 1999 to 2002, when the district used a more traditional approach to teaching math, than from 2002 onward, the years in which the nontraditional Connected Math curriculum has been used in middle schools in the district.

Although the test is used to determine which level of math students will take in eighth grade, according to the notes from the Technical Manual for the IAAT included with the data, the “test scores should serve only to provide a piece of the puzzle in determining where to place a student in the secondary mathematics curriculum.”

The district has been changing its approach to math instruction for the past few years. The Connected Math curriculum was introduced to the public schools for sixth-graders in 2001, and seventh-graders began using the program the following year. The nontraditional math program Investigations in Numbers, Data and Space was implemented in all elementary schools in 2003 after it was phased into individual schools in previous years. Parents involved with Columbia Parents for Real Math oppose what they see as a lack of math content — such as algorithms like multiplication tables — in this curriculum.

Parents in the group also dislike the district’s Integrated Math curriculum offered in high schools, another nontraditional math approach that is used by about 70 percent of students. Although high school students have the choice between integrated math and a traditional track, parents in Columbia Parents for Real Math say students are discouraged from going the traditional route.

The Secondary Math Task Force, a group of administrators, teachers and parents, is working on an assessment of the math curriculum in middle and high schools. The curriculum assessment, which happens once every five years, will possibly include recommendations for revisions to the math program, although Sharp said details of these revisions will not be presented until the report is completed for the school board work session May 24.

Until the report is ready, Columbia Parents for Real Math plan on continuing to make their voices heard. The group has formed a steering committee of five members who meet once every two weeks. Members have also attended meetings of the Secondary Math Task Force as observers, and Pruitt hosted a meeting March 13 as a chance for parents to share frustrations.

Tere DeWitt, a member of the Columbia Parents for Real Math steering committee, is a tutor for public school students in grades three to 12 at Focus on Learning. She said she got involved with the steering committee because she has been seeing a decline in her students’ mathematical understanding.

“I think this is really important,” DeWitt said. “I feel almost like a whole generation of kids is lost. Any new curriculum that is used will have to be phased in, and I don’t know how many years of good solid math instruction will be lost. Time is of the essence here. We need to make changes now.”

School board members agree that concerns of parents need to be dealt with now, but said they plan on waiting to make changes until the Secondary Math Task Force finishes their assessment.

“I don’t think it’s the role of the school board to make curriculum decisions; that’s not why we’re on the board,” Preis said. “But for me personally, I encourage the administration to strongly consider the points the parents are bringing.”

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