As teachers and students of mathematics plug away in the classroom trying to give and absorb their lessons, math tutors and parents struggle to help children with math methods they’ve yet to learn themselves. Some find it difficult to teach integrated math — a system that has been used in Columbia Public Schools — while others think it’s a successful, alternative way of solving problems.
Integrated math is a discovery-based system that encourages students to solve math problems in multiple ways. By contrast, algorithmic math teaches memorization and more traditional methods. Columbia Public Schools leans toward the integrated method, though a traditional track is available primarily for honors students.
Tere DeWitt has lived in Columbia for seven years and works for Focus On Learning, a private tutoring program unaffiliated with the school district. When she first came to the city and learned of the integrated math system, she was confounded.
“What is this stuff?” she said she thought. “Where are the summaries and definitions?”
DeWitt said integrated math expects students to know basic mathematical terms but never teaches definitions explicitly.
Catherine Green is a tutor and site coordinator for A Way With Words and Numbers, a partnership program between MU and local schools through which college students tutor local children and adults. As a tutor, she said the biggest challenge for her is the different terms that the investigations method uses for common mathematical processes.
“Instead of saying ‘subtraction,’ they say ‘take-away,’” she said.
Green is in charge of two undergraduate students who tutor at Cedar Ridge Elementary School; she tutors there herself, teaching mostly second- and third-graders. She also teaches math-training to the whole tutoring staff.
Green has trained tutors since mid-September, and their last meeting was Oct. 16. Tutors received a packet of sample problems using the “investigations” method of math, which is the elementary school’s version of integrated math. The tutors said they find this method different from what they were taught in elementary school and indicated to Green that it was difficult to learn.
“It seemed like they were doing well,” Green said, “but in evaluations, they said that they struggled.”
DeWitt said she can empathize with parents who are unable to help their children solve problems using integrated math. She understands the system, but she has a master’s degree and 20 years of teaching under her belt.
“I’d hate to be a parent trying to go through it,” she said.
Jen Rachow’s son is in eighth grade at West Junior High and until this year had been enrolled in integrated math courses since 1997, when the school district first implemented the courses. Rachow said that after awhile, it seemed clear to her that he wasn’t at the level he should be. What’s more, she couldn’t help him do math the integrated way.
“I couldn’t help him with his homework,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out their system.”
Rachow said her son struggled because he lacked basic knowledge of math facts. But he picked it up after she started using traditional drills — borrowing from her grade-school experience — to teach him multiplication and addition. That’s when Rachow elected to put him on the more traditional algebra track. To do so, however, she had to sign a waiver last spring that said she was “going against the school’s recommendation.”
Algebra is considered an honors level class. Rachow, however, said that although her son is an average student, he loves math now and does better than before.
DeWitt said that, in terms of ACT scores, students who take traditional math do better because the ACT is a “very traditional test.”
On the plus side, Green said students appear to understand the version of math better than she did when she was learning it.
“I think it makes more sense,” she said. “It would be easier for the developing child’s mind.”
For example, integrated math and the investigations method use addition landmarks, which are multiples of five and 10. If a child has the problem “4 + 6,” he or she would be encouraged to break the 6 into 5+1, add the 1 to the 4 and then solve 5 + 5.
“Investigations is more like the math I do in my head,” Green said.