Numbers Warfare: Reform Vs. Basics


more parents question innovative math

What good is an innovative math program designed to raise national standards if it leaves some students unable to figure out a grocery bill?

That’s the question Wayne parents have raised as their school district struggles with an issue the best way to teach students math that has sparked nationwide controversy.

The debate, dubbed “math wars,” pits supporters of traditional math, which stresses the basics, against educators favoring reform programs that aim to make students better analytical thinkers and problem solvers.

Reform methods stress revisiting all aspects of math for example, how to do fractions, subtraction and multiplication over and over in a continuous “spiraling.” It includes such tools as lattice graphs, physical models and games as opposed to the old pen- and-paper approach.

Advocates say the new methods force pupils to tap into long-term memory, rather than learning a topic by rote memorization, only to quickly forget it. But critics say reform math doesn’t allow children enough time on any one aspect to master it.

Schools in Wayne and Ridgewood have joined the debate in the past year.

Wayne has been using a reform program, Everyday Math, for more than 15 years. It’s one of the top-selling elementary school math programs used in 185,000 classrooms by about 3 million students, according to Andy Isaacs at the University of Chicago, a director for the latest edition of the program.

But Karen Stack of Wayne says, “I have a son who is an A-plus student, but in a store he can’t figure out how much money he needs if he buys three of something.”

And during a family game of Monopoly her third-grader “has to use a sheet of paper to do calculations,” Stack said. “He doesn’t have the drilling to just know.”

Illustrating the perplexing nature of the debate, however, not all Wayne parents fault the program.

“I think it gives them a variety of ways to look at a problem rather than being locked into one method of doing things,” said Joyce Duncan, a parent of three Wayne students.

When she asked her fourth-grade son to solve a multiplication problem, “he showed me three different ways to do it,” Duncan said. “If my children can show me three different ways to do multiplication, I think that is a plus.”

Nevertheless, so many Wayne parents are alarmed that this spring they put more than 800 signatures on a petition representing about 20 percent of elementary school families. They expressed concern that the program did not teach basics, and they asked for a more balanced approach toward math education.

The issue flared in Wayne a year after doing so in Ridgewood. There, nearly 200 parents last year signed a petition demanding that the district adopt a traditional curriculum. A newly hired superintendent backed out of the job amid the controversy two weeks before he was to begin work. The Ridgewood schools use two different reform programs and a traditional program in elementary schools.

Both districts have formed committees and hired consultants to seek solutions. Ridgewood hired a conflict-resolution specialist to lead community meetings and wants to seek advice from a university on the next steps, said interim schools Superintendent Timothy Brennan.

Wayne has hired a consultant to oversee a review of its program. It also has surveyed elementary parents and teachers and has hired facilitators to run math committee meetings. The committee is working up a report.

Wayne’s interim schools Superintendent Cindy Randina expects the findings will include the need to emphasize basic skills.

“Our goal is to improve instruction,” Randina said.

Everyday Math, one of four or five reform programs available, started 25 years ago at the University of Chicago in a project funded by industries.

“There were concerns that the American worker was not being educated to compete in the international marketplace,” Isaacs said.

Jessica Garofalo, a second-grade teacher at Wayne’s Packanack Elementary School, said the program is geared toward a new generation of learners who are used to constant stimulation.

Instead of presenting an equation such as 102=5 and expecting children to remember, Garofalo said, she hands pupils 10 blocks and ask them to divide them into two groups.

“The way we are teaching gives them a solid understanding of what they are doing,” she said.

The program also is geared to accommodate the way kids learn, she said “That is how the brain works: You do it and you form your own meaning; as opposed to: We tell them and they forget.”

It’s the difference between telling someone how to change a tire, and making them change the tire, Garofalo said.

But parents critical of the program say its not teaching students the basics, including automatic recall of the multiplication tables.

And some are skeptical that reform math is succeeding in making American workers more competitive in the global marketplace.

“I see my children not mastering skills, and I am reading reports that children are not as successful as they should be,” said Robyn Kingston, a parent who wrote the petition that circulated in Wayne.

She doesn’t want to see the program’s critical-thinking aspect eliminated, but says, “We need to make sure we get back to basics, and we need to make sure they are mastering skills.”

Educators predict that future math programs will meld elements of both styles.

Brennan, Ridgewood’s interim superintendent, said it’s an “illusion” that districts can go “back to basics.”

” ‘Back’ means when you used to sort out kids and give some of them advanced math knowing that some of them would be able to go down the street to the factory or the mill and get a good job and work 40 years without ever having to master advanced math,” Brennan said.

“Those places are gone. They are replaced by the global distribution of the workforce,” he said. “Now we have to figure out a way for every student to learn advanced math.”

What’s next

* Wayne’s math committee is expected to complete a report to the superintendent and school board by month’s end. Over the summer, the district will work with teachers to improve the program. The district also may form a parent information committee to help build an understanding of the math program.

* The Ridgewood school district will start working with a university in the fall to consider what’s next for math education in the district.

Sources: Wayne interim Schools Superintendent Cindy Randina and Ridgewood interim Schools Superintendent Timothy Brennan


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