Note: The Board Training took place prior to the math discussion. I am putting the report of the math discussion first, as that is the main topic of interest.
Board Member Mark Clement was interested in discussing math in the district, especially in light of the new Common Core Curriculum starting in 2012. You can read the Daily Herald's report on it here.
For those of you new to this discussion, in about 2000, ASD implemented Investigations Math, a constructivist philosophy. The emphasis is on children discovering math concepts for themselves without an emphasis on standard algorithms and memorization of math facts like Traditional Math (or instructivist) methods (e.g. Saxon, Singapore).
Many parents, like me, were upset with this approach. Most of the concern was their kids didn't know basic math facts. Also, when parents tried to help with homework, the parents weren't able to either 1) understand the homework or 2) the standard algorithms (that parents learned as kids) were not acceptable. This situation created a disconnect between parent and child, where the parent is portrayed (whether intentionally or not) to be inferior to the teacher. And while we want our children to respect and learn from their teachers, it is never acceptable to use education to create a wedge between parent and child. Additionally, some parents were instructed not to help their kids with math homework because "they'd just mess it up." So, we created a situation for parents to be less involved with their kids' education. Understandably, this didn't go over well with many parents.
The district implemented Investigations Math because the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) was planning to encourage all schools in the state to use this program. ASD had some funding available and made the switch a year or so early. However, due to the large amount of parental backlash, the USOE never did request other districts to make the switch.
After 6 or 7 years, ASD revisited math, and suggested four math programs for each elementary school to decide between. (Investigations was put on a 'secondary curriculum' list by the USOE, so it couldn't be used without another curriculum to supplement.) Most schools decided on Scott-Foresman, three stayed with Investigations (needing to supplement in some fashion), and one picked something else. The secondary schools used Connected Math and Interactive Math, as part of the Investigations implementation. The secondary schools were not focused on during the 2007 change in math curriculum. However, the district did adopt a Balanced Math Approach that would allow teachers to use a mix of traditional and constructivist curricula.
The first thing we found out was, since the secondary schools set their own budgets, they decide which curricula they will be implementing. The district doesn't know which curricula they are using--"Everything from soup to nuts." The elementary schools do get their math purchases through the district, so that is why we know which schools are using which textbooks. The Scott-Foresman texts come (from the publisher) with a little insert on using Investigations. Board Member Paula Hill suggested a survey on what programs the schools are using to facilitate a more informed discussion.
My points are as follows.
1. Whenever I have been in meetings, it is stated or implied that Traditional Math is simply rote memorization and that there is no deeper understanding taught of math concepts. In using Saxon and Singapore Math with my own kids, I have not found this to be the case. Both have done a fine job explaining, through concrete examples and manipulatives, why, for example, you carry or borrow when adding or subtracting numbers. An employee of the USOE, Brenda Hales, told Mr. Clement that when implementing the Common Core Standards, there will be more of a concrete emphasis in the lower grades, but more "critical thinking" in the upper grades. Again, we see the prejudice against traditional math: Traditional equals rote memorization without understanding; Constructivist equals critical thinking and greater understanding.
My personal experience, as a mathematician, is that without the foundation of mathematical relationships between numbers (2 x 3 = 6), the brain is unable to grasp higher-level concepts because it's bogged down on something that should be automatic. This is comparable to playing the piano, where your fingers literally memorize the note combinations, so when you go to play, compose, or improvise, your brain (and your ear) are able to concentrate on the creative aspects, and not on the mundane. So, when we say, "Balanced Math Approach", we are implying that a traditional approach is insufficient and must be combined with a constructivist approach. I would disagree with this. As far as I have been able to find, there is no independent, third-party research to back up the constructivist Investigations approach to math. (The one study, cited in favor of Investigations, was funded by interested parties.) In contrast, Saxon provides standardized test scores of before and after Saxon implementation. And Singapore (the country, which developed and continues to use Singapore Math) consistently scores at the top of the international TIMSS test.
2. It was stated that we want to give teachers the flexibility to use whatever methods they are comfortable with, and that not all children respond to the same methods. However, if we want to allow teachers that flexibility, then we need to allow parents the flexibility to select the teachers that match their preferences for what they know is best for their own child.
3. It is important for parents to have more specific information about the main textbooks/curricula their kid's teacher is using. I would like to see this information readily available to parents. Getting information to parents should always be paramount. Board Member Paula Hill repeatedly took a stand for 'information rich', giving as much background as possible to all stakeholders. Her stand was that as we educate parents, we involve them more and more in the process. However, this wasn't something the board, as a whole, supported.
4. The Colleges of Education seem to be teaching more constructivist approaches to math. Even when I took math education courses in the late eighties, the math ed courses were constructivist and the ones I took for my degree were traditional. I didn't know the names or that there were even different 'types' of math, but I do remember a different approach in the math ed courses. Given that approach hasn't lessened in the last 20+ years, our teachers are being shown the advantages of constructivism. Board Member Paula Hill said we should be giving our teachers the upside to the traditional approach, as well. (In our district, 35% of our teachers have five or less years of experience.) When Investigations was introduced, the veteran teachers were the ones who, by and large, refused to use it. There needs to be some sort of 'equal time' for the traditional approach. It is hard to decided between two things, when only one choice is presented and is shown to be the best option. Without actual experience with different methods, why wouldn't you choose the one you were familiar with?
5. UVU has a math remediation rate of 64 -72% over the last 5 years for first-time college students. (2005: 64%, 2006: 72%, 2007: 70%, 2008: 69%, 2009: 68%, 2010: 69%, UVU Institutional Research & Information, Aug 2011) I was told ASD had met with UVU administrators a while ago. UVU was not concerned with the preparation of ASD students. UVU said a lot of this remediation stems from missionaries who have taken a few years "off" before going to college. Still, it seems like a high number. I would like to see a greater emphasis on traditional math. I suspect a stronger ASD approach to math would reduce the need for UVU to remediate our former students.
6. Mr. Clement suggested we get parents involved in discussing math (via public meetings) prior to implementation of the Common Core. Dr. Barry Graff (head of district curriculum) said it would be difficult because there are no textbooks currently developed for Common Core math. The publishers are "cutting and pasting" from their existing texts to accommodate the Common Core. As we implement it next year, our teachers will have to 'get by'. However, Mr. Clement suggested that now is probably the best time for parental input since nothing is set in stone. I am in full agreement and will encourage meetings with all of you for your input on math and the Common Core. Waiting until "down the road" will only put texbook authors in a position of driving the curriculum. Veteran teachers may be able to cobble together a variety of approaches based on their experience, but the 35% of our teachers who are new will probably rely heavily on the textbook.
Additionally, there was a concern that the math terminology has become quite charged. Most board members would like to use less emotional words, and not have teachers label what they are doing as traditional or investigations. However, these are the words parents know. Giving parents a choice would be a great first step. For myself, I don't care what method a teacher uses or that another parent likes a method I don't care for, as long as I can make that choice for my kids. I hope with this discussion, things will move more toward that end.
I'm sure this will not be the last math discussion we have as a board. I am grateful we were able to have an open discussion about a topic of such interest in our district. The board seemed to agree on a specific direction. The principals need to be more flexible with parents making requests based on 'Investigations vs Traditional Math'. The idea of putting a teacher's math philosophy "out there" for all to see wasn't supported. So, for the majority of parents who 'trust the system', there needs to be a vehicle to help them see the choices they could be making. We can actually draw more parents into the discussion as we educate them on what options are available.
This discussion is not just for educators, it is for all of our stakeholders. Right now, as a parent, you have to dig the information out for yourself. If you do have a preference and want to have your child in a specific math program, you will need to meet with the principal and specifically request this. We were told that this is something that has rarely happened, but Mrs. Hill said, if parents didn't have the information, it isn't surprising they didn't make requests in this manner. It is assumed that not many people will care about which curriculum is being used, and there won't be so many requests that going to the principals will become burdensome.
I'm not sure I agree. I, personally, would have felt uncomfortable going directly to a principal about something like this. I would have assumed if it were an option, there would be an easier way of handling it. However, this is the procedure the board has suggested. So, if you have a preference, you may now contact your principal and ask to have your child in the math approach of your choice.
Note: One recommendation from a reader was to create two tracks: constructivist vs traditional. Parents could choose which track they wanted their kids on, and then the teachers would be able to find consistency in approach from one grade to the next.
I welcome all your comments. I know this has been a hot topic, and is one I am very interested in. What approaches or recommendations do you have?
Once a month, the board members will trade off and present an in-service training message from one of our board publications, e.g. American School Board Journal (published by the NSBA), etc. John Burton conducted this month's training. The topic was "Tell Your Story", something Board Member JoDee Sundberg has been working on for quite some time. Some of the highlighted concepts are as follows.
"Every school board, and every school board member, has a story to tell--and it's a story this country desperately needs. Right now, the very concept of public schools that are free and open to all is under attack--and the wrong side is winning the debate."
"We need to take more pride in our accomplishments and more care in how we conduct the public's business. Rhetoric matters. School board members need to choose their words carefully. Take time to craft memorable sound bites and analogies for complex issues and topics."
"Find a way to salt meetings, public forums...and elevator rides with your key messages. Stay on top of district news and take every opportunity to share just those nuggets that illustrate how well public schools are doing, or why we need their help to make sure all students succeed."
Some positive things mentioned about the district were:
1. Collaboration (Early-Out) Monday--First in the state to use structured time for collaboration.
2.Collaboration Incentive--Teachers use a rubric to improve their collaboration effectiveness. This is TEAM merit pay and includes a parent evaluation of the team.
3. Extended Year High Schools--Two High Schools sponsor two block terms in June and July for credit recovery and acceleration. Hundreds of students are attending this program. It is the only one like it in the state.
4. Alpine has the lowest administrative costs in the state of Utah, and Utah had the lowest in the nation.
5. Leadership Development with BYU--ASD developed a master's degree in conjunction with BYU that takes Alpine people interested in administration with a two-year comprehensive master's degree.
6. STARS Summer Reading--Alpine Foundation generates $80,000 annually to put STARS summer reading in the 10 schools with the highest number of first grade students reading below grade level. Gains of 4 months are average.
7. K-12 Online School--Over 400 home school students are registered and use an online curriculum provided by the district. ASD provides computers and two teachers to consult with home school parents.
8. What Counts--Over 2,000 people throughout the district participated in providing input on what they value about public schools and what Alpine can do to improve. (Areas of Focus)
9. District Community Council (DCC)--ASD was the first district in the state to organize a DCC. The council meets regularly with the superintendent and board members to provide feedback from the schools and community.
10. MORALE--In spite of budget challenges, morale among teachers and administrators is exceptionally high. There is a belief that the district is going in a very positive direction and there is great confidence in the leadership of the district.
The Board Meeting was held at Barratt Elementary. The school choir performed, and students, parents, teachers, and staff were recognized. The board approved a revised resolution for poll watchers for the upcoming Bond Election. Please make sure to attend one of the meetings on the bond and bring 2 neighbors with you. For a list of dates and times, please go here. When the board meeting adjourned, we actually saw daylight. ;-)