Summing up math education (4/1/10)

April 1, 2010

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

Nearly 70 parents, school faculty and community members came to a supervisory union-wide informational math night on Tuesday, called “Summing It Up.”

The event’s “purpose was to provide an opportunity for parents and educators together to, in an informed manner, listen, learn and engage in constructive conversation about a variety of math-related topics,” said Molly McClaskey, Chittenden South Supervisory Union director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

McClaskey organized the event.

A panel of math experts spoke for the first half of the program, then the audience broke into smaller groups for a question-and-answer session with the panelists. The discussion focused on kindergarten through eighth grade instruction.

Most schools in CSSU, with the exception of Charlotte Central School, are on board to begin a new math program next year, McClaskey said. CSSU officials will select a new program by the end of the month, choosing between Investigations II and Bridges. Most schools have been piloting the new programs this year.

CSSU schools have been using Everyday Math for approximately 10 years. A CSSU audit, released a year ago, found that many teachers and parents were not satisfied with the program.

“Teachers are very excited to start a new program,” McClaskey said.

Charlotte Central School is the only school in the district that is not scheduled to begin a new math program next school year.

“The whole goal tonight is to just be here together to hear the big picture about learning math,” McClaskey told the audience Tuesday.

Panelists discussed areas like research in the math instruction field, what math proficiency means and best practices for teaching math.

Panelist Doug Harris, co-director of the Center for Curriculum Renewal, which works with schools and education departments to improve student performance, talked about research in mathematics.

“Almost everyone agrees that there is too much in U.S. curriculum,” Harris said. “Talk about being a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Harris said a math curriculum should focus on the areas that will benefit students the most, rather than trying to cover everything in the field.

“My personal belief is which program a school chooses is not the biggest decision you’ll make,” said panelist Bonnie Bourne, principal of Middlebury Elementary School. “No curriculum teaches itself … a district really has to depend on the work of skilled teachers.”

Bourne said the top few math programs are all so highly regarded that it matters less which one is chosen, and more whether teachers are properly prepared to teach it. Bourne said she has seen both programs CSSU is considering taught well and taught poorly.

“Really the essence is, ‘What is the preparation for the teachers and support for the teachers that are going to implement that program,’” she said. “Professional development has got to be the key to implementing whatever program it is that you choose.”

Panelists also touched on some broader topics, such as building the right environment for kids to learn math.

Clare Earley, director of best practices initiatives for the Teachers Development Group, a non-profit dedicated to increasing students’ math abilities, discussed the importance of building a safe environment for students to learn math, where they aren’t afraid to take risks while answering questions.

“Learning is hard, and kids need to know that part of learning is being uncomfortable with some things, then having a breakthrough,” Earley said.

Rick McCraw, math coordinator for the Williston School District, said teachers should work to curb the cultural perception that it is OK to be bad at math.

McCraw said math is the one area that adults tell their kids and peers that they never understood well.

“You never hear anyone say, ‘Oh, I was never very good at reading,’ or ‘I’m just not a good reader,’” he said.