September 15, 2008

District Wrestles With Math Curriculum


A document outlining what students should be learning in Columbia's elementary math classes is headed to the Board of Education this week, but some are urging members to delay approving those objectives.

"I'm concerned they're rushing this through," parent Michelle Pruitt said. "Why not wait a month or three weeks until the October board meeting?" The "learning objectives" is a list of skills students should master at each grade level, including what students should be able to comprehend and compute.

But the goals are too fuzzy, said Pruitt, who has been a vocal critic of Columbia's elementary math curriculum. The objectives leave out key skills, such as mastering common denominators and fractions, kids need to know before taking algebra, she said. Pruitt also criticized the document's repeated goals that students analyze and evaluate math strategies to master understanding and reasoning. "How do you measure someone's understanding or reasoning?" Pruitt asked. "It's not specific enough."

Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon said the document has been revised several times to reflect community feedback. For instance, she said, the most recent document explicitly outlines when students will learn the traditional algorithms parents might remember from their own math education. But Lyon said she is not opposed to revising the objectives again, if necessary. "We're wanting to make forward progress, and we'll do that by listening to the community," she said.

School board President Michelle Gadbois said last week she hoped to pull the math objectives from the agenda for Thursday's meeting, but this morning she said she would recommend tabling action instead.

She said she wants to make sure the learning goals are written in a way that would reinforce the current elementary curriculum, Investigations into Numbers, Data and Space. That program has been under fire for two years from parents who say it focuses too much on concepts and doesn't teach traditional algorithms needed for higher- level math.

Approval of the learning goals is the only say the school board has in curricular decisions. Once members give those objectives the OK, administrators select texts that align with those goals. Columbia Public Schools is scheduled next year to implement a new elementary math curriculum, which has not yet been selected.

Although she has heard from patrons who are upset with Columbia's math program, Gadbois has, for the most part, stayed out of the math debate over the past two years. But last year, she said, the controversial math curriculum took its toll on her nephew after he transferred from Stephens College's private K-5 program to Fairview Elementary School in the middle of his fourth-grade year. After watching his math scores on standardized testing drop, the boy's parents took him to Kumon Math and Reading Center for private math tutoring.

"I've stayed quiet about this because I'm not a mathematician, but when it starts affecting your own family and when that mirrors what everyone else is saying, it's a concern," Gadbois said.

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

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

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