After math: Arguments over programs divide parents, professionals, leave schools with a problem to solve

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PORTLAND — Middle school math programs are generally not considered controversial.

But as Portland begins to implement the new University of Chicago Mathematics program in all three of its middle schools, parents, teachers and math experts around the region are questioning whether the program’s goals add up.

Some districts, like Scarborough, have moved away from a similar math program. Others, like Falmouth, claim great success with what critics call “constructivist math,” a method that has grown in popularity over the past two decades.

Call it reform math, or call it constructivist math, but what everyone agrees on is that the math taught in today’s classrooms is very different than the math many of us remember.

Math wars

“The traditional method worked really well for me. It was easy to teach and easy to get a good result,” said Audrey Buffington, a resident of South Thomaston who taught public school math for more than 12 years before becoming the state supervisor for math in Maryland. She now volunteers, tutoring Thomaston students who are struggling with the school’s constructivist math program.

Buffington said she is frustrated because Maine schools are adopting programs that buck traditional textbooks and memorization models of learning, and replace them with programs that ask students to “discover” the answer through non-traditional routes that build connections between math and other subjects.

While the new math programs are promoted by several companies and are called different things, including Connected Mathematics, Everyday Mathematics and Chicago Mathematics, they are similar to “Investigations in Number, Data and Space,” a program developed by the the Center for School Reform and the Center for Science Teaching and Learning, referred to as TERC, in the early 1990s.

Investigations came out of a grant by the National Science Foundation, awarded to TERC to develop a new way to teach math to American students.

Critics of the program often blame it for U.S. students’ consistent decline in math scores, and even a recent decline to 32nd in the world in a international math proficiency test.

“We teach a mile wide and an inch deep,” Buffington said of the constructivist programs. “There isn’t sufficient practice on any one concept.”

She criticized the programs for not teaching long division, a concept she said is vital to more complicated mathematics at the college level and beyond.

Eva Szillery, who has a doctorate in mathematics and runs the state’s Maine Math and Science Talent Program, said the programs being used in Maine schools aren’t working.

“Many constructivist principals don’t work well,” she said. “They make it complicated.”

Szillery teaches her students math the same way she learned as a student in Hungary, using models math teachers have used for years. She said the country with the highest student math rating in the world, Singapore, bases its education model around traditional structures.

But others say the constructivist programs work well for many students, and that each district is different.

Differentiating

“I wouldn’t necessarily say one (math program) is better than the other, it’s what’s best for the district,” Scarborough School Department Curriculum Director Monique Culbertson said.

Scarborough recently replaced its elementary school math curriculum, moving from a constructivist model to a more traditional model based on Singapore’s math program, called Math in Focus. The district is still using a constructivist model at the middle school level.

Culbertson said a curriculum committee of about 20 teachers selected the new elementary math program, and that they reviewed a variety of different types of programs before deciding on Math in Focus.

“I think a thoughtful decision was made,” she said.

Process analysis

One parent in Portland has openly questioned that district’s decision to move its middle schools to the controversial constructivist programs.

“Parents have flip-flopped on the issue over the years. I understand this is a very volatile issue,” said Anna Collins, whose daughter just started kindergarten in Portland. “The School Board has a responsibility to create a fair, objective process where people’s voices are heard.”

Collins, who spoke out at a recent School Board meeting, asking the board members to review the process for curriculum and program implementation, said she believes the board had too little involvement in the decision to use Chicago Math, a constructivist program, in the middle schools.

“I want them to create a process that’s transparent and objective so the public feels there’s transparency in the system,” Collins said.

She said implementing the same math curriculum in all of the city’s schools eliminates parents’ ability to send their children to schools that use programs they like.

“There are a lot of people out there for whom this is strengthening the argument for school choice. What happens in Portland is going to matter,” she said.

A science and math charter school has been proposed for the Portland area next year. It will compete directly with the Portland Public Schools for students and state funds.

“If the School Board does not take responsibility now, I suspect they’ll regret it,” Collins said.

Beth Schultz’s three children went through the Chicago Math program in Regional School Unit 1 in Bath. She lobbied her School Board to ditch the constructivist program and was extremely frustrated by the process.

“Not every curriculum works for every child,” she said. “It will probably work for some children, but it wasn’t a good fit for mine.”

Schultz pulled all three of her kids from RSU 1 last year and now pays to send them to St. John’s Catholic School in Brunswick.

“I feel schools should be open about what their curriculum is and that parents should really have a voice,” Schultz said. “When they select a school, they should be picking a curriculum that best fits their child.”

The Portland School Board has only had a curriculum committee for a year and half, and the committee is reviewing its role in choosing programs, committee member Sarah Thompson said.

“I think it’s a gray area,” Thompson said. “This is my sixth year on the School Board, and this past year is the first year we’ve been able to dive into any curriculum issues.”

She said she would like to see the community more involved in curriculum decisions, and hopes the committee will be able to bring some parents on board in the future.

Finding an algorithm

Portland’s science, technology, engineering and math curriculum coordinator, Dan Chuhta, said the process the city schools used to choose the Chicago Math program was solid.

“We convened a representative group of teachers from all levels,” he said.

The new program cost $140,000 in professional development and materials.

Chuhta said the group ranked four programs based on a variety of criteria before selecting Chicago Math.

Critics have said the four programs the team reviewed were all constructivist-style programs.

Chuhta said getting students through algebra by the time they finish eighth grade was the ultimate goal. Until now, each school, and sometimes each teacher, was using whatever program they wanted.

“Each program has its own style. In some cases, the language of it can be different. If we’re operating off the same curriculum – the Common Core – then everyone’s clear what the standards are,” Chuhta said.

The Common Core standards are a national initiative that aims to put all schools on the same curriculum, while still giving districts the ability to choose the programs that work best for them.

While Chuhta has never worked as a math teacher – he was a science teacher before taking on his role as curriculum coordinator – he emphasized the importance of finding a math program that works best for the district.

“I think what we need to do is make a decision that’s best for our students and one that makes the most sense for us as math educators. There’s not much in education that doesn’t come with at least two sides of an argument,” Chuhta said.

It’s likely the argument will continue as Portland begins the process of choosing a district-wide elementary math program this fall.

Feeling positive

In Falmouth, constructivist math has been around for years. The district started with Connected Math in 1997, piloting the program before adopting it for the middle school.

Math teacher Shawn Towle, who has since become a trainer for Connected Math, said the program was the answer to the district’s growth issues in the late 1990s.

“The thing we liked the best, was that … we could bring new staff members on board more easily. It doesn’t matter who teaches it. We’re all using the same program,” Towle said.

Towle, who won the Presidential Award for Math and Science Teaching last year, said he thinks the argument over constructivist versus traditional mathematics is overblown.

“They’re talking about mathematics teaching and learning from extreme points of view. People on one side do everything from problems, on the other side, they do everything from algorithms,” he said. “Good mathematics teaching requires both.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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