Monday, March 06, 2006

Math Monday: Louisiana Hayride

Public schools in one Louisiana parish are adopting a controversial new math curriculum. Not everyone is satisfied with the change:
The St. Tammany Public School System's new mathematics curriculum has been called many things.

Supporters call it discovery or connected math, while detractors say it's fuzzy or MTV math.

The new curriculum was put in last October when the State Department of Education gave St. Tammany a choice.

The rest of Louisiana changed curriculums in response to the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated that all states provide what is called a "Guaranteed Curriculum."

When the state changed its curriculum, it gave St. Tammany a chance to develop its own, which it has.

Controversy has surrounded this new curriculum since its inception, and concerned parents in the Military Road area are getting involved.

District 15 School Board Representative Mary K. Bellisario has been organizing meetings of concerned parents for the last three months.

Dr. Margo Guilott, assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, has attended all of these meetings to get direct feedback from parents and teachers alike.

Close to 70 concerned parents and teachers attended the Feb. 6 meeting at Boyet Junior High, also attended by Superintendent Gayle Sloan and her staff.

"It's great to get such a turnout for math," Guilott said.

The initial source of the controversy was the new curriculum's lack of a textbook. Since math is a subject that requires daily practice, many parents are used to sitting down with their children every night to review what they learned that day and to help them with homework.

Alarm bells started ringing for many parents when they realized their kids did not have books to study.

Dianne Moore, part of a coalition of concerned parents, started getting concerned one afternoon when her oldest son told her he had started a petition at his school.

"When he told me he started a petition I figured it was for longer recess or better food in the cafeteria. I was shocked when he told me that it was for the school to teach him math again," Moore said.

Moore's son missed the textbook-based math classes that he was used to, complaining that his math class isn't challenging anymore and that he isn't learning anything.

Similar complaints have rippled across the school system since the implementation of the School Board's new discovery math curriculum, which is web based, eliminating the need for standard textbooks.

Students instead work out of booklets that they were not allowed to bring home at first.

Some teachers have since allowed the students to leave the classroom with these booklets due to parent complaints, but the controversy doesn't stop there.

Discovery learning based curricula are based around the students discovering the lesson on their own, not the more traditional method of memorizing formulas and the multiplication chart.

This emphasis of student discovery suits the St. Tammany School System well, Guilott said.

"Our students were doing well in computation, but not in application," she said. "We want to hold on to the computation part, we don't want to lose what we've got, but we need to work on application. This curriculum allows us to do that."

Discovery methods rely heavily on group learning and activities. Students spend much of their time split apart into groups working on the process of discovering an answer, not necessarily memorizing formulas.

For many concerned parents, that is the root of the problem, and one that has serious ramifications.

Glynn Adams is the spokesman for a group of concerned parents who are challenging the new curriculum. To Adams, discovery learning does not make sense.

Since the focus is on group learning, Adams said the students are basically teaching themselves.

"I had a parent tell me his daughter got in trouble for giving other students the answers during a test. She came home and told him she didn't understand, she gives other students answers every day in class," Adams said.

Instead of a few students in each group giving the other students answers, Adams and his group of concerned parents want a return to more traditional forms of teaching.

Discovery math places the focus on the process more than the basic skills required, Adams said. The main problem, exacerbated by the students teaching themselves, is that the end result is lost. Students come home without a clear idea of what they have learned in math class that day.

"I ask my kids every day, 'What did you learn in school today?' They look at me and say 'Daddy, I don't know,'" Adams said.

Students spend so much time doing activities and working in groups, the main focus of the lesson is lost. Instead, Adams said, students come home with tidbits of information about the activity, not the fundamental rule they were supposed to learn.

"If you Google discovery learning, and Google is a verb now, you will find Web site after Web site talking about how discovery learning does not work," he said.

Guilott, her staff and Dr. Grant Wiggins, a researcher hired by the School Board, researched school systems across the country that have implemented discovery learning based curricula, focusing on school systems in Plano, Texas, and Napierville, Quebec, Canada.

Parents in Plano have sued the school board there in an attempt to get rid of connected math, Adams said, and similar cases can be found across the country.

Adams created a PowerPoint presentation for the meeting that included a map showing close to a dozen school districts where parents are trying to remove discovery or connected math from their children's schools.

"Let's not be an area of contention on this map," Adams said.

Most parents and teachers alike are pushing for more traditional learning techniques to be woven into the curriculum, giving students a more concrete understanding of what they need to know.

"Unfortunately, the only way to test the system is to study it for 20 years and see if it works," Ken Holladay, a calculus professor at the University of New Orleans and a concerned parent, said. "We have studied the traditional method, and it is a proven failure. Some kind of mixture is the only way to succeed."

"We think the balance has gone way one way, and we need to pull it way the other way," Adams countered. "There are some things that students just have to know."

Guilott pointed out that this curriculum is very new, saying that, because of Hurricane Katrina, it is really in its first month. Changes are being made on a weekly basis, Guilott said, and it will take some time for all of the kinks to be worked out.

Adams couldn't agree more, saying his group plans to petition the School Board for changes as long as they see a need to do so.
Our junior high in California's "Imperial" Valley adopted a "bookless" math curriculum a few years ago. It lasted three years before students, staff, and parents had had enough. We now use the California edition of Harcourt Math.
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