As many of your readers are aware, the Ridgewood Public School District has made a committment to select an elementary school textbook….

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2008 at 12:55 pm

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.

  1. Look at Sadlier Oxford Math which has plenty of practice and plenty of word problems for the critical thinking gurus.

    There are solutions other than Everyday Math and TERC, but this decision is more political than practical.

    Here’s a link to a review of it.


  2. 8:37, there are plenty of practice problems on the internet. AOPS is one of them. Most people like to view AOPS as hard, gifted education. There are easy problems too. One needs to work one's way up to higher level's. AOPS has a variety of problems for both beginners and advanced people. Here are some of the easier problems.


    They are all from this main site.

    You see? your child can practice these problems until they can do proofs like the problems presented at the IMO. In fact the Artofproblemsolving Algebra book is not out of reach for an average middle schooler.

  3. Well, let’s see if the BOE whines that $4,500.00 is too much to pay to have Houghton Mifflin bring a workshop to Ridgewood.

    After all, they already spent $9,000.00 on a consultant to verify what every one already knew, that parents were upset with the current array of crappy math programs.

    And yes, I’m being snide. This BOE and its administrators deserve nothing but contempt for the way they have mishandled this issue from day one.

  4. 9:13,

    I would tend to agree with you. Short of getting rid of Regina, nothing is going to change the coarse this administration and its BOE has chosen.

    All these panels and meetings are just a ruse, a dog and pony show for public consumption, providing cover for a fiat compli.

    It is a forgone conclusion that the BOE will be purchasing Everyday Math and its spiralling curriculum for use district wide.

    Sad to say, with the backing of Shelia and the BOE she controls, Regina has won the day. All else, from here on in, is just for appearances sake.

    And there is no hope that our new super will lead in this regard and be an honest broker. He is far to weak of an individual for that task.

    I feel sorry for parents with young children, there is going to be a huge surge in the demand for math tutors.

  5. Just out of curiosity, what does the plaque at the entrance of the BOE say.

  6. 10:03,

    It says, “Vote Obama ’08”

  7. Big question (and follow up): who (if anyone) has the authority to fire Botsford? Who hired her? Is she a contract employee and if so, when is it up?

  8. Mr. Cunningham’s letter helps explain why Regina will not allow parents to sit on her “planning team.” He is far more knowledgeable on this issue than any member of the board, the administration, and the team. He has already done far more research than this team is capable of. This was also quite obvious from the math meeting last week.

    In contrast, as relayed by an earlier poster, Regina had no knowledge of prior materials in our middle schools, and she was not willing to do the research. Of course her inability to ever provide an intelligent response to parents is legendary. What Regina fears most is that parents will learn the truth. She is unfazed by her previous failed constructivist experiment at Bridgewater-Raritan. She is hell-bent on conducting another experiment with our children.

    But we know all about Regina’s inadequate performance. The most disappointing thing to come out of the math meeting was to see with our own eyes how weak and uninformed our new super is. It is no wonder he was passed over in the first search.

  9. 10:03 –

    Re: “Just out of curiosity, what does the plaque at the entrance of the BOE say.”

    It says:
    Get off your fat ass and go down there and read it for yourself.

  10. 9:38 –

    Re: “Short of getting rid of Regina, nothing is going to change the coarse this administration and its BOE has chosen.”


    Our one last hope was a strong superintendent.
    Oh well, that ship has sailed…

  11. 10:26.

    Succinct. Witty. Perfect.
    Loved it!

    I laughed out loud.

  12. Hold the phone!…so your big idea is to go with a program that hasn’t even been written yet and won’t actually be used in a single classroom until Fall 2009? Excuse me for being skeptical…I would much rather build on what we have PROVEN to be working here in Ridgewood, namely Everyday Math at Somerville and Ridge. Want to beef it up with some more traditional supplementation? Sounds good. There is NEVER going to be one single program that does it all. And pining after this romanticized Singapore program is futile…until our nationwide school structure, assessment methods, teacher training, contractual workday formats and overall educational philosophy undergo a major revision (read, impossible for many reasons), it is disingenuous at best and willfully destructive at worst to keep misleading people that Singapore is “the way.” The Singapore Math that you lust after isn’t even being used in Singapore anymore! The Singapore math books available in the US are based on a translation that is more than 7 years old and the materials have been revised.

    But I digress. In regard to your untested, untried Math In Focus idea, I’ll borrow a phrase I’ve read on this blog a time or two: don’t experiment on my kids!

  13. Give Fishbein a break…he’s inherited a bunch of crap. Regina (and others) are on contracts…hers was just renewed recently, so he can’t just go in and clean house. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make personnel changes in an entrenched school administration. But he seems to be smart and responsible. Give him some time.

  14. Our BOE renewed the contract of a failed employee (Regina). Then, the board hired a weak superintendent. Anyone think the math problem will be solved in a way that strengthens math competence?

  15. My dear 6:44 PM – have you looked at Everyday Math materials? They are, at best, inefficeitn and confusing. Kids and parents alike hate them. There are far better programs around that could/should be implemented here in Ridgewood. I supplement my childs Everyday Math with Singapore and my other child’s CMP2 algebra with Saxon. The reason Somerville does so well? Teachers and parents are supplementing with traditional methods.

  16. As far as Singapore Math is concerned…It is written in English. All of the International test results that show Singapore as the number one country in the world mathmatically have been taken by students who use the program that is currently available in the US. Why would we want to use anything less than the best for our students? Yes, our US teachers need to be better educated on using the Singapore program but our doctors, social workers, and accountants (to mention just 3) are also are required to continually update their education inorder to stay current with times. Take a look at what has proven success, not just what promises to have success.

  17. Singapore does not have the top students in the world. Far from it. Here are the results of the IMO. http://www.imo-official.org/results.aspx. CHN stands for china, RUS stands for Russia. The numbers next to the country stands for their rankings for that year, the first one being 2008 the most recent year. Go ahead and use Singapore math and refuse to listen to what I say. America will lose the next arms race.

  18. To clarify what I meant in my previous post, it is not that I or anyone here wish America to lose the next arms race (which is inevitable). It is just that I wish some more people on here believed in their children a little more. Singapore math produces children who ace standardized tests. Standardized tests are a far cry from research math/science. The people who become researchers are the one’s who are maybe the top 1%. It has very little to do with the overall test scores of one nation, rather the top students. Many of my friends and I use contests problems as a way to learn math. It seems as if acceptance into MIT is the norm among us and no we are not “gifted”, just presistant. Contest problems are not designed to be measured in percentage correct. The average contestant gets maybe 10 questions out of 25 right on the AMC so if your child can get 10 right, then he/she is doing pretty well. All I ask is for you not to jump to conclusions about your child after the first try. Problem solving techniques takes months and years to build up. Be patient with them, they will get better.

    If you want your child to be top 20% use Singapore math. If you want your child to be top .000001%(and they can be) use Artofproblemsolving. It takes time but is worth it in the end.

  19. “Yes, our US teachers need to be better educated”

    Ah you see, here’s the problem, America does not produce as many top math majors because k-12 education focuses so much on english and humanities rather than math and science. Obviously the best of the best are going to go to research etc… but other countries (like China) have such a vast amount of top maht majors that they can afford to lose 2000 top students a year to research whereas if we took out the top 2000math students in America we would be running very very thin. Countries like China have so many people interested in mathematics because there is no such thing like the excuse that “I’m not a math person” there. Very few children believe they are bad at math whereas in America we are willing to accept the fact that we are not good. A few years ago we allowed the High school Affilliated with Renmin in Beijing to take the AMC. That one school had 20 perfect scorers, the entire United States of America had 59. This just shows that we lack the participation and dedication that the chinese have, thus the Chinese are able to produce better teachers because they have more qualified people than we do.

  20. Anonymous said: “The Singapore Math that you lust after isn’t even being used in Singapore anymore! The Singapore math books available in the US are based on a translation that is more than 7 years old and the materials have been revised.”

    Math in Focus is based on the latest edition of the materials currently being used in Singapore classrooms. This commenter is referring to Primary Maths, which is distributed through a web site, not through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  21. “…until our nationwide school structure, assessment methods, teacher training, contractual workday formats and overall educational philosophy undergo a major revision (read, impossible for many reasons), it is disingenuous at best and willfully destructive at worst to keep misleading people that Singapore is “the way.””

    You’ve laid down quite a gauntlet, 6:44 PM. Care to elaborate (starting with the passage quoted above, if you please)?

  22. 7:38, I am not the poster you are referring to but I will defend that statement. If you look at our students, how many of them take pride in their studies. How much more do we spend on sports teams and entertainment than education. Look at the cover of just about every magazine save scientific american and see what the cover is about. Most of our children don’t care to be scientists/mathematicians rather pop artists etc… Yes we need a overhaul in our educational philosophy but where I disagree with the comment above is that I believe it is possible. We need to make learning and thinking attractive again.

  23. 9:43 The link you provided is for an International Math Olympiad, where a small number of participants have a little math contest. You need to learn some math if you think we can say much about Singapore or any other country’s math performance based in this. Actually it says more about a country’s population: The larger contries can produce more top performers, hence the China, USSR, and USA rank consistently best.

    I guess YOU won’t help us win an arms race!

  24. 9:51, India has a huge population, much bigger than Russia and the US but they don’t perform well on olympiads. Olympiad math is training, not population. I agree the 6 smartest students from India are probably smarter than the 6 smartest from a country from a lesser population but it doesn’t mean anything if those 6 don’t recieve the proper training. my point is it doesn’t matter if your child is the smart or not, they can get better through training otherwise the ranking should be China and India and 1 and 2. Why settle for Singapore math when your child can not only learn math but also learn how to reason through artofproblemsolving. Anyone that can win a gold at the IMO is leaps and bounds ahead of anyone thay has mastered everything from only Singapore math. There are beginner level contests your child can practice from until they get to a higher level. Top schools like Princeton recruit at the IMO, do they recruit people using singapore math? Don’t settle for less. The fact that the IMO is only for the top 6 students from each country is not an excuse not to allow your child to learn from the best curriculum.

  25. Another point I’ll make is the top schools from china produce 20 perfect scorers PER SCHOOL, How many perfect scorers do we produce per school (I think TJHSST had 4 or 5 once). I don’t think the amount of students at a Chinese high school is any bigger than the amount of students we have at our high schools. Again, it’s about training.

  26. I’m sorry I forgot to include the list. http://www.unl.edu/amc/e-exams/e6-amc12/e6-1-12archive/2006-12a/06-perfect1012AB.html Apparently Renmin had 26 perfect scorers. China had 3 high schools represented on this list and had 33 perfect scorers. That is an average of 11 perfect scorers per school. America had 2092 schools take it and 59 perfect scorers. Had 2092 schools in china taken the exam I’m pretty sure they would have way more than 59 perfect scorers.

  27. Let’s put Art of Problem Solving vs Singapore math aside. Both are a far cry better than TERC, Everyday Math, and CMP2. The real problem is that our Math Planning Team isn’t likely to consider anything but discredited constructivist junk math. Anything authored by mathematicians won’t be up for discussion.

  28. 4:29 Agreed, TERC needs to go.

  29. 8:21, I don’t believe you agree with the heart and soul of 4:29’s position. Otherwise you would have included Everyday Math in your comment when you chimed in.

    If I am wrong, I will be perfectly happy to say so, but I suspect, based on what you did not say, that you would be pleased to see the district standardize on Everyday Math.

    TERC/Investigations (now known simply as “Investigations”–the term TERC having been retired as too ‘radioactive’) is the red herring in this debate. Nobody with any knowledge of the market for math curricular materials is in favor of retaining it. The question is whether we allow the district to perfect their intended head fake by foisting content-denuded, mastery-opposed Everyday Math on all six grade schools in Ridgewoods.

  30. I do not believe Everyday math should be used in schools or any school anywhere. I have never in any of my postes advocated for Everyday Math. I have clearly advocated for Art of Problem Solving and have stated the reasons why. If I wanted Everyday Math to be retained then I would have said so. I do believe that our math curriculum needs change, but I disagree with the idea that Singapore math is the way to go.

  31. But if you are refering to what I would suggest our elementary schools should use, I admit, I am at a loss. For middle school and high school students Art of Problem Solving is a great curriculum. The Art of Problem Solving Intro level books are perfect for anyone beginning to study Algebra, Geometry, Probability, and Number Theory(yes you middle schooler can understand NT). Perhaps these kids are the ones who have completed pre-algebra. Before that I have no clue as to how you should teach your child. The Preschool/elementary school books this website refers to (http://www.artofproblemsolving.com/Books/AoPS_B_Texts.php) are for supplementing your child’s curriculum and not a textbook on addition etc… I am not a parent, but a student. As for adopting AOPS as a curriculum, I’m not so sure the teachers in our schools are qualified to teach it. It would, however, serve your child well if you supplemented your child with AOPS alongside the curriculum we have.

  32. The ongoing debate on Ridgewood’s math instructional program should probably not extend in earnest to the middle schools and the high school until the particularly abysmal situation in the grade schools is squarely addressed.

    This is not to say that Ridgewood taxpayers and parents have not raised the issue of whether the district should reconsider its commitment to CMPII in the middle schools–they have, including recently, directly, and in person to the Ridgewood Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent. A lot depends on whether the current process with respect to the grade schools result in (or starts heading toward) the adoption of something other than a constructivist math curriculum.

    The Columbia, Missouri public schools is apparently aware of the common constructivist “link” between the Everyday Math curriculum in its grade schools and CMPII program in its middle schools. In a remarkable turn of events that should be of interest to all of us here in Ridgewood, the Columbia district, under heavy scrutiny by dissatisfied district parents and taxpayers, has begun a process of “cleaning house” with respect to its entire K-8 math curriculum. In a September 29, 2008 public statement, Columbia District Interim Superintendent James R. Ritter announced the district’s plans to adopt “a more traditional approach to reaching mathematics in grades K-8.”

    As justification for the move away from constructivist or “reform” math curriculums, Columbia Superintendent Ritter cited a lack of improvement in Math achievement scores. At last word (an earlier public statement in June 2008) the Columbia School District was considering adopting Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Math in Focus” program (based on Singapore Math). A new curriculum scheduled for release in 2009, Math in Focus is expected to incorporate many of the techniques associated with constructivist math curriculums while remaining true to the best aspects and pedagogical goals of so-called “traditional” math programs.

    I’ve read the bios of the people currently writing the Math in Focus curriculum. Three U.S. teachers (Andy Clark, Robert Hogan, and Patsy F. Kanter) with considerable experience with the U.S. market appear to be heavily involved. Another author (Dr. Fong Ho Kheong), apparently prolific in his own right (he has published more than 100 journal articles and research reports, as well as primary and secondary Math textbooks currently in use in Singapore), is an Associate Professor and the Head of the Math and Science department of the Emirates College for Advanced Education in Abu Dhabi, UAE. A further author (Gan Kee Soon) has been a Principal of a Singapore secondary school, and a Lecturer at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he has spent 22 years training and supervising primary Mathematics teachers. Three more authors have 81 years total experience teaching math in primary and secondary schools. Most of these individuals have Bachelor of Science degrees in Mathematics. With qualified people like this involved in the Math in Focus project, I expect the resulting product to be competitive, easily marketable, and attractive to modern U.S. school districts.

    Provided the Ridgewood district is not asleep at the switch, it should seize this chance to reestablish its chops as a “cutting edge” district. By comparison, a move to standardize on a constructivist mathematics curriculum at this late date would strike me as unavoidably and unforgivably “retro”.

  33. Hi, my name is Amy Flax. I am a concerned math parent in New Jersey. Our local curriculums are driven by our state standards. Our current state math standards are currently being reviewed. This is our opportunity to make a difference. I believe that we need world class state math standards which in turn will drive the implementation of world class curriculums. A friend of mine received a copy of the state standards from the NJDOE and it is public. Input is welcome. I would like you to take the opportunity to comment. I would like to tell you that the language still looks very “fuzzy” with words like “Explore” and does not mention the Standard Algorithm.

    If you are interested in commenting, please email me at amyflax@gmail.com, and I will send you the draft standards. Please send your comments back to me.

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