September 9, 2008

District Steps Back From Controversial Math


Columbia Public Schools' chief academic officer said the district is ready to compromise with the community when it comes to elementary math. But Sally Beth Lyon, who oversees district curricula, stopped short of saying concepts-based math would be replaced by a more traditional program.

"We're going to figure out how to get something done so we can all move forward," she told the Tribune. "We're still at the table and will discuss the best way to move forward and include and acknowledge the community concerns we're hearing."

Lyon's comments followed last night's Board of Education meeting, where board member Ines Segert accused the district of appointing people to district math committees who are biased toward investigative math programs and not appointing mathematicians who favor more traditional math instruction.

Segert cited three University of Missouri math education professors who serve on district committees and have received grant funds to train Columbia teachers how to use concepts-based math materials. "They instruct teachers in a certain ideology that happens to be used in these textbooks we have in class," said Segert, a vocal advocate of returning traditional math to classrooms.

Lyon told the Tribune she doesn't see those committee appointments as conflicts of interest because the federal grants are awarded by the state and do not involve district funds. "Nobody has ever received one red cent in a way that influences our curricula decisions," she said.

Columbia's elementary math curriculum, Investigations in Numbers, Data and Space, has been under fire for more than a year. Until recently, district administrators have defended the current practices, even though more than 640 parents signed a petition saying their kids aren't learning the math skills they need to be successful at higher levels.

Some voters said concern over the math curriculum was part of the "message" they sent the district when they voted in April against a proposed 54-cent tax increase that failed.

The elementary math curriculum is up for renewal at the end of this year. Last year, an internal evaluation team recommended either keeping Investigations, using another conceptual program known as Everyday Math or switching to Singapore Math. Those options are "still the case," Lyon said. "Whether that remains the case is up in the air."

Segert said she prefers Singapore Math because it combines both concepts and traditional algorithms, but she said the district needs to hold a communitywide forum before making any decision. At that forum, she said, administrators should provide accurate data so parents can make an informed decision.

In the past, Segert said, the district has released data that is "incomplete and selective" to support existing practices. For instance, the district touted that Columbia Missouri Assessment Program test scores are above state averages without noting that the district averages are declining while state scores are improving. And although the average math score on the ACT college entrance exam remains above the state average, it also dropped to 23.1 this past school year from 23.3 out of a possible score of 32 the preceding year.

While it's not the board's role to select curricula, Segert said, members must ensure that a curriculum doesn't contradict the board's goal to improve student achievement.

The board is charged with approving district learning objectives, and members were supposed to vote on elementary math learning goals at a Sept. 18 workshop. In light of the ongoing controversy, board President Michelle Gadbois said she wants to table that decision.

"Right now, I'm very reluctant" to vote on the objectives, "knowing the pressure we're under from constituents," she said. "Parents who are extremely angry about the math are staying in touch with me about that. ... I do believe we need more discussion before we vote on objectives."

Reach Janese Heavin at (573) 815-1705 or [email protected]

Originally published by JANESE HEAVIN of the Tribune's staff.

(c) 2008 Columbia Daily Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.