Transcript of Op/Ed piece by Gavin Cunningham in the Friday, October 31 edition of The Ridgewood News:
As many of your readers are aware, the Ridgewood Public School District has made a committment to select an elementary school textbook or program for use in all schools, and to plan a professional development and implementation rollout to begin in the 2009-2010 school year. Along these lines, I attended a Ridgewood District Math Planning Team meeting on Monday night and participated in one of the many small group discussions facilitated by a member of the District administration. My comments to the facilitator and to the other district parents in my group reflected my disappointment with the math programs currently in use at my son’s elementary school (Travell) and at the middle school he will eventually attend (Benjamin Franklin).
Some of the district personnel I spoke to on Monday may have recalled my comments at the public microphone during the ‘kickoff’ Math Night in January. That evening, I expressed my frustration with the fact that none of the valid criticisms of the district’s K-8 math instructional program being offered in earnest by district parents and village taxpayers were reflected in any real way in the public remarks of the assembled Board trustees, district administrators, and school principals. I further explained that I was beginning to question the wisdom of my decision to purchase a home in Ridgewood and send my two sons and one daughter to the public schools here. This despite the fact that, as a graduate of Hawes Elementary, (then) Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, and Ridgewood High School, I am well aware of the excellent reputation the village holds in public education generally. Commenting on what I considered to be a mere “math appreciation” curriculum in place in Travell and BF middle school, I expressed my concern that by the time my children reach seventh or eighth grade, the inherent weaknesses of these math programs will have deprived them of a real chance to pursue a rewarding science, technology, enginering and mathematics (STEM) career. Having myself earned a Engineering degree at Pennsylvania State University, held an engineering design position for four years with an aerospace engineering firm in New Jersey, attended law school at night in Newark, and finally begun a career as a patent attorney in the tri-state area, I felt confident my opinion would hold at least some weight in the minds of those present.
Since that time, much has transpired, both locally and nationally, some of which (including the results of the recent Board of Ed elections) may indicate a certain level of satisfaction with the status quo, but most of which has reflected a wholesale rejection of constructivist approaches to elementary math instruction. In particular, the Presidential Math panel, in its recently released final report, not only emphasized math facts automaticity and subject matter mastery as two critical goals for America’s K-8 math instructional programs, but further singled out the wide spiraling approach employed by Everyday Math (Willard/Somerville) and like curricula, such as TERC/Investigation (Orchard/Travell), as being particularly incompatible with such goals. In light of these developments, I have become increasingly concerned with the fact that the Ridgewood district is actively considering standardizing on a constructivist-type curricula for K-8 mathematics instruction.
One gentleman (a district parent) in my small group at the Math Planning Team meeting expressed general satisfaction with his childrens’ collective experience with Everyday Math in his local grammar school, as well as with another constructivist-type mathematics curriculum (Connected Math Project II or CMP II) that is beginning to predominate in the Benjamin Franklin and George Washington middle schools. His fear was a return to what he described as “rote learning” in our schools, which he believes would detract from the goal of encouraging our children to think creatively. I have heard this argument repeatedly, and have no true quarrel with it. Unfortunately, the term “rote” is usually delivered as a means of squashing debate. In other words, and in my experience, those who wield the term “rote” seem to think that if they can somehow get that label to stick, there will be no need to come forward with any specific information or analysis to prove that the detractors of constructivist math programs are espousing a return to the ‘bad old days’ of boring drills and mindless memorization.
That being said, I have to admit that, at least as of Monday night, I couldn’t point to a valid option in terms of a full-featured math curriculum suitable for purchase by the district that skeptics like the aforementioned gentleman could easily support. For example, and regrettably, I have concluded that the domestically-distributed curriculum developed by the educational ministry of Singapore (Singapore Math), and which that county has used to go from “worst” in the 1970’s in the Far East (including a rock-bottom $300 per capita income) to “first” in recent student math performance rankings (as well as handsome economic gains), is still basically a “foreign flag” curriculum that is unlikely to be attractive to the administrators of a top U.S. public school district like Ridgewood.
Since then, and with some digging, I learned of a new alternative elementary mathematics program being developed for the U.S. market based on the corresponding elementary school program in Singapore. A division of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Great Source) is currently working with Marshall Cavendish to offer what appears to be a comprehensive curriculum called “Math in Focus” that will be available for use in U.S. classrooms from Kindergarten through fifth grade beginning in the Fall of 2009. Based on the information I have seen so far, the program will be rich in math content. (This is an area in which constructivist-type math programs have come under heavy fire.)
Descriptions of the in-development Math in Focus curriculum state that it will use a problem-based approach to achieve greater depth of instruction and improved mastery of basic math concepts. Similar to Everyday Math, Math in Focus will start with concrete examples and problems, and move on to pictorial representations before shifting to powerful abstract concepts and techniques.
Based on my background understanding of the Singapore Math program, once the abstract concepts and techniques are mastered, there will be little to no further use of concrete and pictorial techniques. (In my view, this is a sensible approach, akin to removing the training wheels from a child’s bicycle once they have shown that they are capable of riding freely.) Provided Math in Focus stays true to the mission of Singapore Math, any student requiring intervention to maintain grade-level achievement will receive supplemental instruction during fourth and fifth grades, so that by sixth grade, each and every elementary school student will be prepared to transition into higher level math subjects with relative ease.
Math in Focus is already attracting attention in major school districts. An organization called Columbia Parents for Real Math created a Petition to the Columbia Public Schools Board of Education and Superintendent Phyillis Chase entitled “Math Excellence in Columbia Missouri Public Schools”. The Petition, written Ms. Michelle Pruitt, has attracted a total of 647 signatories. Ms. Pruitt has apparently accused the Columbia Public Schools administration of violating district policy because its Elementary Mathematics Program Evaluation Committee is presently considering only two programs, namely, Everyday Math and Investigations (second edition). In a June 1, 2008 letter to the Editor of the Columbia Tribune, the Committee denied the charge, claiming that they are actively considering “[a] third program called Math in Focus – the U.S. version of Singapore Math.” Interesting.
Anyone with a stake in the current math debate should take the time, as I am doing, to explore whether Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s new Math in Focus program will meet our needs here in Ridgewood. For those of us, like me, who do not favor adopting either of Everyday Math or Investigations, a lot will depend on whether the final product comes through on its promise to employ rich math content to deliver both depth of instruction and mastery of basic math concepts. In the meantime, the publisher is offering to bring an onsite workshop to any interested school or district. The cost (about $4,500 for up to 60 participants) appears reasonable, particularly given the importance of the issue.
I urge the Ridgewood district to follow the lead of the Columbia Missouri public schools in actively (and publicly) considering Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Math in Focus program for purposes of a district-wide rollout in Fall 2009.