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Math programs don't add up as Manchester teachers cobble together lessons, use old workbooks

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 24. 2017 9:49PM
Teacher Jennifer Aboshar works with her students using improvised teaching materials at McDonough Elementary School in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — When Manchester schools started earlier this month, it marked the third year without a common, district-wide program for teaching mathematics in elementary schools, a situation that is drawing criticism from school officials, teachers and parents.

Critics, some who asked to speak anonymously for fear of reprisal from fellow teachers, say children in the city’s 14 elementary schools don’t get the same textbook or workbook — or even any book — that provides the tangible, step-by-step continuity that is helpful to mathematics instruction.

Without a district-wide curriculum, teachers cobble together lessons from various sources, meaning no conformity for lesson plans and teaching material in the district.

In July, Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas told a school board committee that he would like to revisit the decisions made about textbooks before he was hired. A “universal consensus” exists, he said, that teachers don’t have enough materials and textbooks.

But it comes down to money, he said.

“We do have a resource issue here. If we didn’t I already would have addressed this textbook thing,” Vargas told the Curriculum and Instruction Committee in July, according to committee minutes.

School officials said a new program could cost as much as $1 million.

“The district has done away with a ‘program,’ meaning we no longer have math books for our students,” reads an anonymous letter, signed “elementary school teacher” that was delivered to Vargas and two school board members over the summer.

Teachers use math workbooks left over from previous years, the teacher wrote.

They also download material from websites such as teacherspayteachers at their own expense (one 3rd-grade workbook bundle goes for $72). Lesson plans cost less for individual topics. For example, a lesson plan about sums costs $7. The district provides some materials.

The teacher said the search for instructional material is time-consuming.

“Students in the upper elementary grades should be using a math book,” the teacher wrote. A book would allow the students to look up tables, formulas, the glossary and index. 

And a book would allow parents to help them understand math lessons.

“I can’t see a logical progression. Without a textbook, I can’t see how we’re logically proceeding from one skill to the next,” said Patrice Benard, a parent of a child at Green Acres School. 

Teacher Jennifer Aboshar teaches math using a variety of improvised teaching materials because of no math textbooks at McDonough Elementary School in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Not one-size-fits-all

But a college professor said the latest approach to elementary-school instruction downplays a one-size-fits-all, packaged curriculum.

Teachers are expected to pick and choose to find the best lessons that fit their particular students, said Kimberly Bohannon, an assistant professor of education at Keene State College.

“Children are all different,” she said.

For example, a language-rich math program that concentrates on word problems might be an obstacle to children with reading deficiencies, she said.

Bohannon reviewed the on-line programs that Manchester offers its teachers and said they appear to be comprehensive. Much of the second-grade math lessons link to Engage New York, a program developed by New York state to meet Common Core standards.

Manchester school board member Lisa Freeman, who received the anonymous teacher letter, said Manchester schools abandoned the last district-wide math curriculum, Everyday Math, when the Manchester Academic Standards were adopted in August 2014.

The school board asked administrators to find a replacement, but they never did, Freeman said.

“We haven’t had a math curriculum in this city in three years,” she said.

Up to the teacher

One teacher compared the Academic Standards to the destination on a road map. (For example, in second grade a student should be able to “measure to determine how much longer one object is than another, expressing the length difference in terms of a standard length unit,” according to the standards.)

The route to get there, however, is now up to the teacher.

At Parker Varney School, Principal Amy Allen said teachers collaborate on a single Parker Varney curriculum. They use several leftover text books and learning aids, including pilot programs the school tried out such as enVision Math and MyMath, as well as leftover programs.

At times, she said, teachers find it challenging to find the best lesson plan.

“It’s been kind of ongoing professional development,” Allen said. Allen added that she’d like to see more training in math for teachers across the district.

At another elementary school, a veteran teacher said teachers collaborate, but it comes down to whatever a teacher decides is best for her class. The teacher did not want her school or name published, fearing repercussions. Manchester students come from such diverse backgrounds, she said, that she’s not sure one curriculum would work for all.

“I wish we did have some kind of a book or program we all could use,” she said, “but on the other hand, I don’t know what it would be.”

She uses the teacherspayteachers website for some lessons. Her school, she said, has an active parent-teacher group that provides stipends that cover the lesson. Other schools don’t.

“There are a lot of teachers buying a lot of things,” she said. She said teachers also use their own printers at home to print out the lessons.

A teacher of more than 20 years, she relies on her experience.

“You’re pulling pieces of what you used to use, a game, a book,” she said. “For a new teacher, I don’t know what they’re doing.”

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