This is the second part of a three-part series on how the Prince William County School Board dealt with Math Investigations at its January 21 meeting. In Part 1, we listed the arguments of teachers and principals in defense of Math Investigations. In addition, we listed the comments of parents, largely in protest, on the Math Investigations program. This post will consider the comments of the School Board. Because this section was longer than expected, I have decided to consider the treatment of the event by the news media and to offer a few observations of my own in a third post.
What Did The School Board Have To Say?
As Chairman of the School Board, Milt Johns initiated and regulated the discussion of Math Investigations. He began the discussion by making it clear that he put the subject on the agenda at request of several board members. He also defined the terms of the Opt In Option for Traditional Math in Elementary Schools. Johns proposed the following for PWCS’s K – 5 Math Investigations program:
- That PWCS’ two traditional schools revert to teaching Traditional Mathematics in the September 2009.
- That any elementary school where the parents of at least 25 students (same grade level) request (in person or writing by March 31, 2009) traditional mathematics instruction offer a Traditional Mathematics class for those children. The Opt In Option would commence in September 2009.
Johns then requested that each of the board’s members offer their own comments in two rounds, allowing each member several minutes each round. Finally, Johns closed with his own comments.
Here is a rough summary of the comments from the board’s members.
- Dr. Michael Otaigbe: Dr. Otaigbe appreciated the opportunity to consider the Opt In Option for Traditional Math. Otaigbe observed that PWCS is well known for offering students a choice, and he gave the example of the variety of programs offered at various high schools. He noted that teachers and parents must work together to teach children. If some parents do not accept the Math Investigations program, then their children will have trouble learning. The Opt In Option would give parents — and teachers — an alternative. Otaigbe stated he supports the Opt In Option.
- Julie Lucas: Lucas began by addressing one of the concerns of the parents who spoke during Citizen Comments. She said she does not have a staff, and that she was unable to respond to all the emails from parents. She also said that she did not have any parents complaining about Math Investigations in her district. However, she did get complaints from other districts, and she feels an obligation to listen to the concerns of all parents. She wants parents to feel welcomed by PWCS. Lucas advocated a work session. She is clearly concerned that the Opt In Option could generate additional costs for PWCS.
- Betty Covington: Covington echoed Lucas’ inability to respond to all the emails. She said a significant number of parents in her district are unhappy with Math Investigations, too many to ignore the complaints. She wonders why the Opt In Option would not be a win-win for everyone and did not see any reason why it could not be made to work. “You can make what works work if you want it to work.” The Opt In Option would not be an abandonment of Math Investigations; it would be an alternative for the parents who want one. “Parents are our customers.” She also said she has spoken to teachers who are unhappy with Math Investigations. Covington support for the Opt In Option is so strong she expressed concern that the requirement for at least 25 students might be too large at the smaller schools. She suggested basing implementation of the Opt In Option upon the percentage of the students whose parents request it. She supports a work session.
- Denita Ramirez: Ramirez appreciates the passion of teachers and parents and their desire to put parents first. She has not heard many complaints from parents in her district, but has heard complaints. She is not yet convinced that the data supports Math Investigations. She prefers the blended Math Investigations/Traditional Math approach, but she hears some teachers are not using a blended approach — not fair! If PWCS cannot guarantee the blended approach is consistently offered to students, she will support the Opt In Option. However, she is concerned the Opt In Opt would be difficult to schedule and would be detrimental to disadvantaged students. She supports a work session.
- Don Richardson: Richardson is convinced that the Opt In Option will cost additional funds. Busing students, for example, would cost money. Scheduling and managing two programs would also cost, but that cost would be difficult to determine. With the budget cuts, now is not the time for new spending. Richardson opposes putting another burden on staff. However, Richardson’s big objection is philosophical. Decision-making authority should not be taken from professionals. The school staff has earned his respect, and he trusts their judgment. The Opt In Option would set a bad precedent. The School Board risks other parents asking for an Opt In Option for their favored alternative in other subjects. Further, preliminary data shows Math Investigations is just beginning to work. His goal is to get a program that works for the largest number of students. Instead of abandoning the Math Investigations program, the debate should be used to how to improve and make instruction more consistent. Richardson reminded members that the board voted unanimously for the Math Investigations program.
- Gil Trenum: Trenum appreciated the comments about students losing number sense and analytical capabilities, but that was during a steady state — when no changes were being made. Trenum also noted that choice is common in the PWCS system, and that the reason the balanced (or blended) approach was implemented was due to complaints from parents. He wondered aloud what he should do if a parent complains his child is not getting it. Traditional Math does work for some children. Trenum added that teachers should be provided the tools they need and allowed the discretion to use those tools.
- Grant Lattin: Lattin began by reminding us of the problem that the Math Investigations was launched to address. The children of the U.S.A. are rated only 19th in math. The relative loss of math skills in this nation has profound implications for future prosperity, and the decline occurred with Traditional Math. Math Investigations is not the cause of the decline. He reminded parents that the first couple of years were expected to be difficult; people have to be convinced. He believe Math Investigations is working; he has talked to all the principals in his district, and they support the program. He said it would be a shame to abandon the program just as it is beginning to work. Lattin supports a blended approach and said teachers should be encouraged to use both Math Investigations and Traditional Math techniques in their instruction.
- Milt Johns: Johns began his comments by thanking Superintendent Walts for his tolerance. He noted that the Math Investigations program in PWCS predated Walts. Walts did not initiate the program; he implemented it. Moreover, Walts pioneered the blended approach. Johns made it clear that the Opt In Option would not end Math Investigations. The Opt In Option would not deprive any parent who want their child to have Math Investigations. Nonetheless, Johns felt the need to respond to the criticism which he feels is extensive. He had two or more emails from parents from each of 26 elementary schools. Johns is not worried about setting a precedence with the Opt In Option and sees no slippery slope. He also sees no additional cost. The Traditional Math program would use textbooks that have already been purchased and an established curriculum. No work session is needed, and budget process will use up most of the available time. What is needed is a decision. However, Johns agreed to poll board member on the need for a work session via email.
Johns also responded directly to some of the Citizen Comments and the email has received. He defended the integrity of the staff from the comments of some parents (something Richardson did as well during his comments). At the same time he indicated some disappointment with the comments and email from a minority of the teachers. Some teachers began attacking the Opt In Option before they even knew what it was. Further, he felt the criticism of parents and their right to be involved in curriculum choices was unwarranted (a point also made earlier by Covington). Of course parents have the right to determine what their children learn. The School Board itself is a parent-run institution.
Still More to Come
As their comments demonstrate, the board is split on the Opt In Option. Fortunately, the members of the School Board usually work well together. Hopefully, they will find a compromise that works well for everyone.
The next post will consider the value added by news media coverage. In addition, I will explain what I think the average citizen has to learn from the School Board’s dilemma.
Part 3 of this series is here.