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Administrators' presentation on new math program fails to quiet critics

Published 1:37 pm, Wednesday, December 12, 2012
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School officials on Tuesday gave a public presentation on the school district's controversial new method for teaching secondary math at the request of parents and members of the Board of Education.

At the board's last meeting, several parents spoke out against the new approach, under which students break into small groups to help each other solve math problems. They also complained there has been a switch to a new "College Preparatory Math" math textbook that is shared by students and available at home only online.

Their complaints were followed by some board members' demands that it be discussed publicly at the Dec. 11 meeting.

Many parents, who have formed an opposition group called "Fairfield Math Advocates," contend their children are struggling with the group learning method, implemented in September, and spend more time trying to solve problems than being taught the subject by the teacher.

The presentation was given by Deputy Superintendent of Schools Karen Parks; Margaret Boice, director of secondary education, and Paul Rasmussen, secondary mathematics curriculum leader. Lauren Mason, a math teacher at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, spoke during the presentation on her positive experience with the new teaching model.

Parks began by saying that the curriculum for Algebra I has not changed since it was approved in 2006.

Two things have changed, however, about math and Algebra I -- the instructional approach and the textbook, she said, trying to correct misinformation that the curriculum has been changed. "Both of those were driven by the Common Core State Standards, which demand much greater level of understanding of mathematical concepts and procedures," she said.

Parks said, however, "In our zeal to move forward, we may have made some mistakes," including use of the new math textbook by itself, which, she said, was originally intended to be used with the McDougall Littell math textbook. The latter textbook was not distributed to students, however, in an effort to avoid confusion among students, she said.

"We've heard loudly and clearly from the parents that they need a more structured text with more structured support at home to help their children with math homework at home," she said.

Parks said a McDougall Litell textbook will be provided to every Algebra I student, in addition to a web link for the parent guide to the other textbook.

"There's no denying that last spring we should have informed the board about the use of the CPM textbook as a pilot," she said. "Believe me, we regret that was not done."

Parks has said the new textbook, which supports the teaching method, is being "piloted" for $13,000 -- a cost which includes training teachers how to use it -- and will be brought before the board for approval in the spring. If the board approves its use, then the textbooks would be bought for and an additional $52,000.

Boice said the group instructional method, which uses a "constructivism" learning theory, is already being used in grades kindergarten through fifth grade and is being expanded to grades six through 12.

"It's important to keep in mind that it's not unique to the model we're using," she said, adding that Singapore Math uses the theory. "We see constructivism everywhere."

Mason, a Fairfield teacher for seven years, said the group teaching method allows students to work together and make discoveries with her guidance, with the goal of gaining a deeper understanding of math.

"The students are no longer passive participants in the learning process," she said.

Vice Chairwoman Pamela Iacono said she was concerned that the teacher's manual for the new textbook made reference to allowing students to struggle in solving problems.

"How does the struggle part not cause frustration to the point of being turned off?" she said.

Parks said a little struggling is involved so that the student gets a better understanding of the material, but teachers try to avoid situations where students become frustrated.

"I think the teachers are very mindful of that," she said.

Board member John Convertito said the questions and concerns the board is raising over the new teaching method and textbook reflect "a failure to communicate" by the school administration. He said he has heard many teachers say the model is a success yet many parents say they are frustrated with it.

"I'm not quite sure how we proceed with this thing," he said. "We're already almost halfway through the school year and we still don't have significant questions answered as to how it came about and how a textbook was purchased."

Board member Perry Liu said parents and board members have become skeptical of the administration because they are confused as to what is happening with the math program.

"Is this a game we're playing?" he said.

Board member Jennifer Maxon Kennelly made a motion, which she later withdrew, to add to the agenda a discussion on stopping the use of the new textbook in the classroom after board member Tim Kery and Iacono said many parents would not have a chance to become aware of the discussion and comment. Instead, she requested a special meeting be held on Jan . 8 to discuss halting use of the book. There was no decision Tuesday on whether to hold a special meeting on the program.

Later in the meeting, a few teachers expressed support for the new textbook and teaching method.

Barbara Bennett, an Algebra teacher at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, read a letter signed by all of the Algebra I teachers backing the new instructional method.

"This method provides students with the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts this year," said Bennett, who attended a week-long training session over the summer with the teachers. "They're learning why as concept works, not just how to use it."

At the same time, some parents expressed displeasure over the textbook and instructional method as well as lack of communication.

Jay Marcus of Osborn Lane, with two children attending Fairfield schools, said he was frustrated that some Fairfield students' test scores are below average.

"I think parents need to be listened to because they are the ultimate consumers besides the students," he said.

mjuliano@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 112; twitter.com/mjulianoadv