November 12. 2012 9:30PM

New math program has its NH detractors

New Hampshire Union Leader

Some school districts in New Hampshire that are reporting good results with a controversial math program for elementary students have tweaked, revised and supplemented the Everyday Math program to make sure students learn the basic facts that critics say the program glosses over.

Parents who see their children using the Everyday Math way of doing arithmetic are often confounded as they watch their children getting solutions by working left to right.

The math learning program was designed for elementary schools and stresses understanding over memorization.

Advocates say it builds a foundation that will lead more students to go further in math.

"There are more kids, who could learn more math if it was taught correctly," said Rosanne O'Donnell, a consultant for McGraw-Hill, the publisher of the series. "

Critics include people who excelled at the learn-by-rote methods.

"It stresses self-discovery far, far too much," said Tony Falcone, who holds undergraduate degrees from MIT and a doctorate in mathematics. "What they want is for students to develop conceptional knowledge, rather than rigor or something you can learn by rote."

Falcone was part of an effort to persuade Hollis school officials to jettison the major part of the program.

More recently, parents in Manchester raised objections to the program, citing difficulties students had in mastering high school algebra after exposure to the Everyday Math world of "conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills."

In Bedford, administrators report different results.

"We more than doubled the kids who successfully finished algebra one by the end of eighth grade," said Chip McGee, assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum in the Bedford School District.

After using Everyday Math as it came, out of the box, changes were made.

"We began to make tweaks that were important, given the student performance on the NECAP," McGee said. "We saw the need for kids who struggle to spend more time with these kinds of basic numerical skills."

Parts of the program that testing revealed didn't work well were dumped.

"Some are extremely helpful and we found a couple that we don't think are helpful and we've gotten them out, we don't teach them any more," McGee said.

In Concord, Linda Stuart, the school district math coach, says the core of the Everyday Math program is sound.

"Our kids are coming out with lots of reasoning skills, they're strong math thinkers, they make sense of problems, they are actually even learning to explain their thinking and explain what they're doing," Stuart said.

Everyday Math does a lot of teaching through gaming, which enables teachers to track student performance, but which are sometimes unwieldy in a classroom of 25 pupils.

The answer in Concord was to buy a computer program, Fastt Math, to aid in teaching basic facts.

Stuart said she also gets together with groups of teachers and they observe each other teaching math concepts, then meet to refine the ways in which it is taught.

In Bedford, the school district conducts an annual Curriculm Institute prior to the start of the school year, aimed at district-wide implementation of the best emerging teaching techniques.

Manchester, where parents complain about the transition from elementary to secondary school math, curriculum coordinators have been lost to budget cutting.

"We have a full-time K-8 math and science curriculum coordinator and she identified the issues," Mcgee said. "We instituted a systematic approach to what the gaps were and agreed on changes that we will make and changes we won't make."

Asked about whether the district could improve its handling of Everyday Math by including more professional development time for math teachers, Michael Tursi, the assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum spoke generally about teacher training.

"Any time we have an opportunity for professional development around any type of curriculum and resources I think that will be beneficial," Tursi said in a brief interview."

Supporters of the back-to-basics approach, and advocates of Everyday Math do have one area of agreement.

Teaching - and learning - math requires commitment, not magic.

"If (professional development for teachers) is not there, they're not going to get the full power of Everyday Math," O'Donnell said. "Everyday Math can still change things for the better, but they won't get the full benefit."

Falcone, the mathematician, in convinced that schools would do well to get out the flash cards and assign students to do problem sets.

"I know for an absolute fact that many of the students who get to the higher levels in college have had the idea of describing problems explained to them but are still missing the key ingredient," Falcone said. "It's like getting a membership to a gym and going every day and wondering 'why aren't I in better shape, I watch people work out every day.'"

Concord's Stuart says Everyday Math, with some tweaking, can also get students into math-problem-solving shape.

"If we teach kids to think and reason and understand what they are doing, you will have math thinkers and highly qualified (students)," she said.