September 25, 2008

Schools Turn to Traditional Mathematics ; Ritter Responds to Controversy Over Curriculum.


Amy Surdin uses math every day in her accounting job to balance payroll and help restaurants do sales tax returns.

But even with her hands-on skills, she couldn't help her sixth- grade son with his school homework.

"I cannot understand why they can't do long multiplication or division to get answers," she said. "This works, and drawing out boxes of blocks or estimating generally then narrowing down the answer do not seem to be good means of mathematics."

Surdin was thrilled yesterday when she learned that Columbia Public Schools will return to teaching more traditional math facts next year in elementary and middle schools.

Interim Superintendent Jim Ritter has directed the district's math department to take investigative-type math curricula off the table when looking to adopt new math curricula. The decision marks a victory for community members who have fought the district's current practices of emphasizing concepts without showing students how to solve problems using traditional algorithms.

"We've put significant effort over the past several years to convince the community what we're doing is correct, and the" math "coordinators worked hard and have taken a great deal of abuse during that time," Ritter said. "But after all of that effort, to me, it's time to look in a different direction because what we're really trying to do as a school district is to represent what the community wants."

Ritter said his decision was based on concerns he's heard from numerous frustrated parents such as Surdin.

"I've heard from a wide variety of people, just regular people who have regular kids in school," he said. "It's far more expansive than one small group of people who choose to be highly vocal."

Columbia elementary schools have been using the concepts-heavy Investigations into Numbers, Data and Space since 2003. Administrators were expected to implement a new elementary math program this year, but budget cuts forced them to delay purchasing materials.

A curriculum committee spent last year reviewing curricula and narrowed down a list of possible curricula to three choices: An updated version of the current Investigations program; another investigative program, Everyday Math; and Singapore Math, which combines conceptual learning with more traditional computation.

Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon warned people not to assume Singapore Math will be chosen by default. Instead, she said, the committee is going to go back to the drawing board to review other available math curricula that represents a "more traditional or fundament presentation."

Although they were pleased with Ritter's decision, traditional math advocates Michelle Pruitt and Ines Segert agreed that it's just the first step of what will be a complex transition process. Children, they said, are behind where they should be after having had years of investigative math.

"There's going to be some catch-up we have to do," said Segert, a member of the Columbia Board of Education.

Educators will have to learn new teaching strategies, too, but Lyon said that would be the case regardless of which curriculum is chosen. "Professional development is absolutely a critical part of implementation of any curricula materials - Everyday Math and Investigations, too," she said.

Support teachings will be key to any successful transition, said John Lannin, a University of Missouri math education professor and member of the district's elementary math curriculum committee.

"I hope we do what's best for kids, whatever curriculum is chosen, so they understand basic facts, traditional algorithms and make sense of mathematics," he said. "We need to support teachers so they can help kids continue to reason and make sense" of math "ideas. Textbooks don't do that."

More important, Segert said, teachers need to accept the change. "We've got a lot of hard work ahead of us," she said. "Any transition to a new curriculum, we're going to have to make sure our students make that transition smoothly, and to do so we need everyone on board."

Math teachers showed up in force at the September Board of Education workshop, some of whom said they felt board members weren't listening to experienced educators who supported using investigative math in the future.

"Truly dedicated professionals have spent months and years looking at these programs and truly thought the approach they were using was the best approach for our children," Ritter said yesterday. "That's not the point at this stage. We, as a school district and board of education, are here to represent the people of our community and to provide them with the programming they choose. We can try to provide guidance in doing so, but after so long, we still find the community is more interested in the traditional approach."

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

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

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