By the numbers: Citizens discuss how students can best learn math

Wednesday, December 12, 2007 | 10:29 p.m. CST; updated 9:22 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Roy Keller said he thinks Columbia Public Schools need to return to the basics of teaching math.

“We’ve got to get junk out of the classrooms and return to basic arithmetic,” Keller said at a Wednesday night meeting on the subject at the Columbia Public Library.

The meeting was organized by Patrick Crabtree, a concerned parent of two children in the school district, to discuss the ongoing debate of integrated math in the district’s curriculum. About 25 to 30 people opposed to integrated math attended the meeting.

“Math is an absolute,” Crabtree said. “We’ve got lots of problems, but we’ve got to work at them.”

The meeting included presentations by Keller, Crabtree and Ben Basye, a retired professor from the University of Missouri-Rolla with a doctorate in engineering and applied mathematics.

Keller, a retired professor from the University of Nebraska with a doctorate in mathematics, said students are struggling in upper-level math courses because their knowledge of arithmetic is weak as a result of not learning the basics in elementary school.

“We’re teaching youngsters about math and not math itself,” Keller said.

Keller said that he met with district math coordinators Linda Coutts and Chip Sharp and with Superintendent Phyllis Chase to discuss his concerns.

“You’ve got to go to the people who can do something,” Keller said.

In Columbia Public Schools, roughly 39 percent of students are in the algebra pathway and 61 percent are in the integrated pathway, Sharp said. In the algebra pathway, students take traditional math courses, whereas in the integrated pathway, students take math courses centered on integrated math. Integrated math allows students to learn the same content that is taught in algebraic math, but in a different context, with an emphasis on contextual and situational situations rather than formulas and algorithms. Integrated math also focuses on solving real-life problems, he said, departing from the traditional formula-based math technique.

“There’s no numeric goal to have a certain number of students in each program,” he said. “The point is that we want our students to be as prepared for their future as possible.”

Keller said there’s something wrong with the fact that integrated math requires students to make connections on their own.

“The basics of math are not tied to applications,” Keller said. “It’s not something you can learn on your own.”

Ben Podgursky, a Hickman High School alumnus who is now a freshman at Vanderbilt University, expressed frustration about integrated math in an interview last month. He said the daily life approach taken by integrated math doesn’t allow for the multiple facets of math to be taught.

“Integrated math doesn’t allow you to learn subjects in enough detail,” he said.

Emily Cianciosi, a senior at Hickman, said that integrated math is wordy and there is an “overwhelming” amount of information given in each problem. Cianciosi said she has been in integrated math for a few years, and it has not helped her math skills.

“There’s so many words and so much information you don’t need to know,” Cianciosi said in an October interview.

Regardless of the technique, the debate is rooted in a desire to better serve students.

“The emphasis should be on teaching students in more effective ways,” Sharp said.

He said in order to find common ground between two forms of curriculum, discussion is key.

“The challenge is to communicate better and to be concerned about where we want our children to be,” Sharp said. “The emphasis should be on the certain skills and abilities that students need for their future.”

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Dennis Hare December 13, 2007 | 12:14 p.m.

Integrated Math sounds like a rehash of "modern math" which was popular (and eventually discredited) in the late 1960s and 1970s. And it caused a generation of students to be deficient in math skills for exactly the reasons mentioned in this article. Students spent weeks/months learning such things as 'why' you invert and multiply when dividing by a fraction. They drew cute little pictures of why this worked out. They also spent lots of time writing charts showing each step in solving an equation. They learned the "commutative" principle and how to explain it while solving a problem. What they didn't do was spend much time actually working the problems and learning the basic math facts. Thus students didn't have the repetitive exercises which ingrain these skills in your mind. In fact, college profs "pooh poohed" all that rote repetition that was needed to learn the multiplication tables and such. Those of us who were in college at that time remember classes to teach us how to teach math using this process. It was nice for college profs who were writing (and selling) textbooks, but not so nice for students. The Columbia School District needs to listen to these parents.

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