RECONSIDERING MATH INVESTIGATIONS IN PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY — PART 1

school.pngBecause of the continuing controversy over Math Investigations, the Chair of the Prince William County School Board decided to put the following item on the agenda of the last School Board meeting.

Opt In Option for Traditional Math in Elementary Schools (Johns) – This agenda item provided the opportunity for the Prince William County School Board to discuss an opt in option for traditional math in Prince William County elementary schools and to revert the traditional schools to traditional math.

Math Investigations, developed and peddled by TERC, serves as the foundation of Prince William County Schools (PWCS) K – 5 mathematics curriculum (See here.).  The program has met with considerable resistance from some of the county’s parents.  Their website is PWCTEACHMATHRIGHT.COM.

Over 50 teachers and parents spoke during Citizen Comment time.  This is an almost unheard of number.  At about three minutes for each citizen, the comments took almost three hours.  Nevertheless, the school board exercised considerable patience and listened respectfully to all the comments.

The comments that occurred both during Citizen Comment time and during Board Time (by board members) during the meeting on January 21st demonstrated deep division on the matter of Math Investigations.  This post will summarize the comments from the teachers and the parents.  Later this week, we will consider the comments offered by the members of the School Board, the coverage of their meeting in the local news media.  In addition, I will offer my own observations.

Teacher/Principal Comments

One can only guess the reason, but Citizen Comment time was obviously front loaded with teachers and principles.  Approximately 25 teachers and principals spoke in favor of the Math Investigations program.  Since the viewing audience most likely dropped off as the evening wore on, that obviously resulted in the local citizenry hearing more from the teachers.   In addition, some people who had intended to speak obviously gave up.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the arguments the teachers and principles offered in favor of Math Investigations and against the Opt In Option for Traditional Math.

  • The point of Math Investigations is to help children understand mathematics.  To progress in mathematics, children need to develop a number sense and a grasp of mathematical concepts.  Traditional mathematics just teaches algorithms; it does not teach well how to apply the algorithms or how the algorithms work.
  • The current PWCS math program is a blend of Math Investigations and traditional mathematics, taking the best of both.  This combination meets the standards of learning imposed by the Virginia DOE (See here.).  This approach was described as balanced.
  • In response to parent complaints, the PWCS Math Department has already adjusted its math program to include more traditional math and to include to the teaching of traditional algorithms earlier in the program.
  • Children learn in different ways.  Math Investigations is a multimodal teaching method that is supported by brain research and demonstrated by data as being effective (See here, the PWCS website, for this data.).   Based upon this success, some teachers support carrying  Math Investigations forward into middle and high school.
  • The children like Math Investigations and look forward to it.
  • Math Investigations in elementary school provides children the foundation that they need for more advanced math instruction such as algebra.
  • Plenty of homework material is available in the Math Investigations textbooks.
  • Instruction with Math Investigations provides students with a better level of retention.
  • Math Investigations helps the largest number of students.   Traditional math works for relatively fewer children and leaves more frustrated.
  • The National Council of Mathematics Teachers supports Math Investigations.
  • Those objecting to Math Investigations are just objecting to and suspicious of change.  They need to participate in parent work sessions and math nights.
  • The Opt In option would be a step back.  It would divert resources, cost more, and complicate the execution of instruction.
  • The teachers are the professionals and the experts in math instruction.  Parents should respect their expertise and let the teachers do their job.

Parent Comments

Against Math Investigations

As Citizen Comment time progressed, about an equal number of parents spoke.   With few exceptions most parents spoke in favor of the Opt In option or for just dropping Math Investigations.   Many of their arguments are detailed at PWCTEACHMATHRIGHT.COM.

Here, again in no particular order, are some of the arguments parents offered against Math Investigations and for the Opt In option.

  • Most parents said Math Investigations is not working for their children.  They are forced to make up for what their children are not learning and teach it at home.
  • Math Investigations robs the children who get it.  The program is dumbed down.
  • Based on the results of the PWCS’ own survey (see page 11 here), almost half of the parents are unhappy with Math Investigations.  (Author’s note:  The satisfaction trend is significantly downward.  See page 7 here for the results of last year’s survey.).
  • When the Virginia DOE rated Math Investigations against the standards of learning, Math Investigations text scored poorly.  Math Investigations did not satisfy the standards set for the fifth grade.
  • Parents said Math Investigations does not deliver, and they claim math scores go down where it has been implemented.  One noted that most of the evidence that supports Math Investigations was financed by TERC(Author’s note:   While it is clear that some of the parents have studied this matter carefully, this argument with PWCS and TERC educators is beyond the scope of this blog.   The debate quickly become an argument over which statistics to use and which education experts to believe.)
  • Parents, not teachers, are their children’s primary caretakers and teachers.   As their children’s primary advocates, parents have the responsibility to decide what and how their children will be taught.
  • Parents have the right to question the expertise of professionals.  Even doctors make mistakes when they do not listen to the concerns of their patients.   As their child’s advocate, parents serve as the voice of their children and must be seen as part of the solution, not the problem.
  • Parents said that they attended parent work sessions and math nights.   They still do not like Math Investigations.  They complained that  Math Investigations is too dumbed down and the algorithms it teaches to solve math problems are overly laborious.
  • The fact that children appear to enjoy Math Investigations is not particularly relevant.  Children might enjoy a diet of popsicles and pop tarts, but no responsible parent would put their children on such a diet.
  • PWCS’ blended Math Investigations/Traditional Math is not consistently offered across the school division.  Some schools teach Math Investigations exclusively.
  • There is no real evidence Math Investigations actually works.  A  TERC type method was tried in California in the 90′s.  As a result, the number of college students required to take remedial math doubled. TERC promotes Beyond Arithmetic (see front cover here.).   This book supposely demonstrates that  TERC encourages the suppression of accuracy and precision in favor of estimation and many possible right answers (try googling “beyond arithmetic” accuracy precision terc — Author edited the previous link for clarity.) .   What Math Investigations does not do is provide the foundation for learning mathematics as a vertically structured knowledge domain (i.e., before you learn the advanced concepts, you have to understand the basics.).
  • Math Investigations dwells too long on the concrete (manipulatives and games) without getting into abstract concepts and the application of algorthms.
  • One parent observed an odd disconnect.  Many of the parents complaining about Math Investigations have advanced degrees and jobs that require they understand mathematics well.
  • Some parents wondered how the PWCS leadership managed to get its principles and teachers so solidly behind Math Investigations.  None of the PWCS’s principles and teachers came to the School Board to complain?  They all like Math Investigations?
  • Math Investigations emphasizes group learning.  When success is measured as group success, individuals have no opportunity to excel or fail as individuals.  Moreover, some children want learn, not just play games.
  • Another parent compared Math Investigations to the Montessori method (see here and here).   What she observed is that unlike the Montessori method which starts by providing a child concrete manipulatives and then progressively encourages children to learn more abstract concepts, Math Investigations seems to stop at the concrete without ever getting to abstract concepts.

For Math Investigations

Here are some of the arguments parents offered in support of Math Investigations.

  • As a mother and business owner, one parent wants her children to learn mathematics because the skill is essential.   She argued traditional math is not working.  Too many adults do not know math.  She says the board made a good decision and should stick with it.
  • Another parent simply says she is convinced Math Investigations works and all schools should offer the same math program.  She understands that some parents find the change scary.
  • A few parents made the clear statement that Math Investigations (blended with traditional math) is working for their children.  That statement came principally from teachers with school age children.  However, it also included few parents who are not teachers or PWCS employees.

More to Come

This blog is more about a discussion of principles of good government than the fireworks that sometimes result from human interaction.  Nonetheless, in the next post we will consider the fireworks.  That is because avoiding those fireworks is a large part of what good government involves.

Part 2 of this series is here.

The Cartoons

What we have is a definitive difference in opinion.

Although the public school system aims to be secular, PWCS teachers and principals claim to be on a quest to end math atheism.

calvin_hobbes_math_atheist

Unfortunately, some parents have yet to be convinced.  They wonder if the School Board has made a mistake.

2-fuzzymathsalesman-print1

Nonetheless, we can be confident that our School Board is not ignoring the problem.

graduation_woes

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About Citizen Tom

I am just an average citizen interested in promoting informed participation in the political process.
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9 Responses to RECONSIDERING MATH INVESTIGATIONS IN PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY — PART 1

  1. kgotthardt says:

    My younger daughter is learning with a blend of MI and traditional methods. She seems to be grasping both concepts quite nicely.

    I grew up on memorization and have little understanding of the subject, so I believe yes, something WAS missing from the teaching methods of the past. I would recommend the blend.

    I also like the idea of an “opt out” for parents who are really against the program.

  2. Citizen Tom says:

    kgotthardt – I am glad to hear your child is doing well.

  3. I gave up on PWCS teaching my children math and began doing it at home using a more balanced curriculum. My kids are thriving with the “afterschooling” program they are following, I just wish the county program was more amendable to alternate computational strategies which are not mandated by the Investigations program.

    I’m hopeful the county will allow parents to opt their children into a more traditional program, supplemented with Investigations and other materials where needed. I’ll still continue my efforts at home, but with a more balanced program at least my efforts will reinforce what my kids are learning at school instead of being forbidden.

  4. Ed says:

    If all the schools had been thoroughly blended from the start, these issues would not have arisen. The math department was so convinced by the MI approach that they didn’t accept the criticism but chastised us for speaking out and asked for patience in waiting for the promised gains.
    That is what led us to where we are today. There is not enough challenge and we don’t trust them to do it right.

  5. I’m not sure blending the Investigations curriculum is the best approach. Investigations is designed to be a standalone curriculum – it provides a full academic year of lessons. Blending means you’d have to pull something out of the Investigations curriculum and replace it with alternate materials which, in my opinion, would undermine the integrity of the Investigations program.

    While the blended mantra seems to have a nice ring to it, I’m not sure how much blending is really going on. Are teachers being provided materials from alternate programs to conduct their blended lessons; are they being provided guidance on where to insert additional material into the Investigations framework so that the lessons are a blended; are they being encouraged to teach and support alternate computational strategies not support by Investigations and are they provided materials to enable them to teach, support,and reinforce those strategies; or is the blend just teachers allowing students to use strategies Investigations does not support without having to justify their work but those strategies are neither taught, reinforced, nor supported by the teachers and materials to teach, support, and reinforce those strategies are not provided?

    I suspect that the “blend” we’ve heard so much of is more teaches doing things on the fly rather than an organized, structured blend of instructional materials.

    In my opinion, Investigations highly regimented and structured program makes a blended approach difficult if not impossible when Investigations is the core curriculum. Other programs are more flexible and would lend themselves to adaptation and inclusion of alternate materials a bit more readily than Investigations does.

  6. kgotthardt says:

    When my daughter comes home with assignments, she comes home with MI worksheets. Her MI worksheets have traditional word problems and computation problems. The non-traditional material came earlier on in the curriculum, providing some background. In addition to the worksheets, she is asked to do other things like memorize times tables and complete similar traditional exercises.

    I don’t think they are taking things out of MI. But I don’t know if ALL teachers are teaching this way.

  7. I’ve seen nothing but straight up MI and my classroom teachers have told me that that’s all they’ve been authorized to provide. Some are providing other material but they are doing so against county policies.

  8. Ed says:

    No; they are very inconsistent.
    And all I meant was, it they had supplemented it would have take longer for us to notice the problems..

  9. sally can't add says:

    A large part of the problem has been the attitudes of some in the district office and mixed messages to the principals and staff. When Investigations was rolled out the message to staff and parents alike was very clear, “This program should NOT and will NOT be supplemented!” or it will end in disaster. The math department claimed low SOL scores were the reason for the drastic change in curriculum. Then both stories changed completely when challenged by parents when they discovered this wasn’t true. There has been a complete lack of transparency and accountability surrounding MI and some PWCS staff continue to claim the “sky is falling” by taking a more common sense and balanced approach to math education. The professionalism and respect needs to be a two way street but what we saw of the last board meeting was far from that. If you haven’t watched the replay on pwcstv.com I recommend that everyone watch it. Some video clips are also available on this site:

    http://www.bvbl.net/index.php/2009/01/27/don-richardson-working-for-us/

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