Portland parent, schools clash over math, copyright

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PORTLAND — The parent of a kindergarten student says she has been shut down in her attempt to understand and criticize her daughter’s math curriculum because the School Department believes she could violate the curriculum publisher’s copyright.

Anna Collins said she became concerned about the curriculum at Longfellow Elementary School when she realized there was no textbook.

So, Collins, who is an attorney, decided she would ask to see the texts the teachers use to prepare their lessons.

“As a parent, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge. I was brand new as a parent in this school system. I just wanted the best for my child,” Collins said.

She received permission to review the teachers’ resource guide, which is what the teachers use to develop their lessons.

Collins said she learned the district is moving to a consolidated math curriculum, and that the programs the schools are using are considered controversial by some math experts.

“I started learning about it, and realized there was this whole national controversy about math curriculums and learned my daughter’s curriculum falls under this controversy,” she said.

Longfellow School uses the Trailblazers program, which is based on the Chicago Math curriculum developed in the 1990s by researchers at the University of Chicago. 

Collins said she did not like what she was reading about the curriculum, which moves students away from traditional memorization of multiplication tables and learning long division, and instead encourages students to discover answers for themselves.

She said she found parts of the text disturbing, including a section of the Trailblazers Teachers’ Implementation Guide that stated, “even though (the algorithms) are less efficient than the traditional algorithms, they are good enough for most purposes – any problem that is awkward to solve by these methods should probably be done by a machine anyway.”

Collins said she wanted to know more about how this algorithm worked so she could help her daughter with her school work, supplement with what she felt wasn’t being taught, and argue against the department implementing this program district-wide, which is under consideration.

Her request to photocopy sections of the manual was denied on the grounds that photocopying would violate copyright laws.

A letter she received from a school attorney, Elek Miller of Drummond Woodsum, said parents have a right to inspect any instructional material used as part of their child’s curriculum.

“However that provision does not provide parents the right to copy such materials, nor does it preempt the Copyright Act,” Miller said.

He argued that if the school were to allow Collins to infringe on the publisher’s copyright, the school could be subject to hefty fines.

“She’s had full access to the materials she’s asked for. She carried it to the next level, saying she’d like to take if off campus and photocopy it,” Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said Monday.

Morse said Collins is welcome to review the materials after school any time, but that if she wants a copy of the full text, she should go out and buy it.

“I think the school’s position in this is incorrect,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maine.

Heiden said that Collins’ request is protected under Maine’s Freedom of Information Act, and that photocopying a public document that was purchased for public use is well within her rights.

“It doesn’t seem like the copyright law is even applicable,” he said.

Heiden said he would be deeply concerned if the school is denying Collins’ full access to these documents because she has been critical of the curriculum.

“That would be highly inappropriate. That would be a real problem. The public records law are supposed to apply to everybody,” Heiden said.

But Morse said the district has been responsive to every one of Collins’ requests.

“I don’t think she’s been stonewalled at all. We’ve given her everything she’s asked for. We’ve been open to her, we’ve had conversations with her. We’ve bent over backwards to give her access to the materials,” Morse said.

Collins said she feels like she’s being bullied into backing down from her criticism of her daughter’s math curriculum.

“Being critical of a curriculum is not some kind of personal vendetta,” she said. “Is this how the administration is going to respond when parents criticize the curriculum? It sends a negative message.”

Collins said she has no intention of suing the school, because that would distract from what the district and she should remain focused on: the math curriculum.

“I want them to rethink this. I’m hopeful that they will,” she said. “I’m hopeful they’ll step back and realize this is not productive.”

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

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