City math program has defenders, detractors
Some parents recently complained about the Everyday Mathematics program, blaming its techniques for poor student performance in high school algebra and on the state performance tests.
Manchester School District officials recently acknowledged they need to examine how math is taught in city schools, after close to 200 freshmen at Central High, nearly one-third of the class, failed at least one semester of algebra last year. Memorial High freshmen were in a similar boat, with 140 freshmen out of roughly 500 in the class, or 28 percent, failing at least one semester of algebra last year. At West High, 137 of 433 freshmen failed.
Rosanne O'Donnell, a regional consultant for McGraw-Hill, is the publisher of Everyday Math, which has met with some controversy in certain areas of the country. She said the program is part of an evolution in the teaching of math, as traditional math gave way to an abstract "new math" in the 1960s. A back-to-basics movement followed,
"It was dumbing down math so much that your pet dog could have achieved," O'Donnell said. "Asking nothing except to rote memorize and compute made the back-to-basics curriculum so over-simplified and redundant that by the time kids went to high school, they didn't have enough background to go on."
Everyday Math was designed by University of Chicago educators. Its publisher claims the curriculum was refined through testing and revision. The goal is to tie math more to the real world, rather than relying on rote memorization and recitation of facts.
"They were taught to do the equation and told, 'Don't ask any questions, just do it this way,'" O'Donnell said. "Kids need to understand the concept."
Critics told a meeting of the Board of School Committee's Curriculum and Instruction Committee last week that students are unprepared for higher levels of math once they leave elementary school.
"We are very concerned about what was brought to our attention," said Sarah Ambrogi, chairman of the committee. "We need to know where the deficit is - in resources or in instructional practices."
School administrators suggested at the curriculum committee's recent meeting that the district is hampered by a lack of coordination among grade levels. O'Donnell agrees.
"What is missing in Manchester is the leadership piece, where someone is leading the faculty regardless of grade level so there is consistency," she said.
Ambrogi sees budget cuts leading to less coordination throughout the district.
"This issue points out how you need a central administration that is able to assist teachers in the schools," she said.
The most persistent critic of Everyday Math has been school board member John Avard; he cast one of two votes against adopting the program in 2008. It was an expensive program to buy, but Avard said more coordination won't help. Everyday Math should be dumped, he said.
"I think we throw it out. We've wasted half a million in taxpayer money," Avard said. "We keep rushing toward fads in education. Fads are why we are spending to put walls back in our (open) classrooms."
Avard said he knows of students who started out in the schools in traditional math and floundered after being exposed to what he terms "fuzzy math."
Ambrogi said her committee will be taking a look at how successful techniques in individual schools in the district and elsewhere can be adapted to the math program to help create a "cross-pollination" between grade levels.
"We have to teach those things that are set by state standards; the goals are very clear," Ambrogi said. "The question revolves around the resources we use to deliver the content and the method we use in working with kids."
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Bill Smith may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.