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Editorial / Administrators owe answers on math changes

Updated 6:23 pm, Thursday, December 13, 2012
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Engineers and actuaries may be OK.

But for the rest of the child-rearing public, few things prompt a whispered oath more quickly a child saying, "I don't understand my math homework. Can you help me?"

And parents of middle school and high school students in Fairfield are feeling even more challenged -- and more frustrated -- this year than in the past.

Administrators over the summer very quietly -- and apparently without proper approvals -- changed the methods by which math is being taught in secondary schools and switched to a new textbook that students are not allowed to take home.

With the school year already one-third over and some parents at their wits' ends, the Board of Education only this week began to get a handle on how administrators implemented sweeping classroom changes in September without the board's knowledge. And with no warning for parents.

In addition to using a textbook that parents can't consult, a new teaching method was adopted in which groups of students try to solve problems collectively -- without their teacher first showing them how to solve a sample problem.

Some parents have complained that their children are struggling with the "group-learning" method, saying kids get highly frustrated when they can't solve problems on their own.

Math educators told the school board this week that under the theory of group learning, a certain amount of struggling is allowed so the student gets a better understanding of the material. They said teachers monitor the groups and try to intercede before frustration becomes a deterrent.

Moreover, the educators said, the group-learning concept already has been in use in kindergarten through fifth grade, and now is being expanded to grades 6 through 12.

With a society that is increasingly dependent on technology and science, it is imperative that the Fairfield schools provide the best math education possible. Whether the optimal math-teaching method is the traditional one or the group-learning method is best left to informed educators to decide.

But several things about the way math changes were implemented in the fall are at the same time puzzling and disturbing.

Why didn't administrators fully appraise the Board of Education during the last school year that they were considering major changes?

Why didn't they inform the board last spring that they wanted to go ahead with those changes in a pilot program?

Appropriations are supposed to be approved by the board. So on whose authority did administrators commit to spend $13,000 to "borrow" new textbooks and then train how to use them?

Because the textbooks were on loan and couldn't leave the schools, how did administrators and teachers expect parents to help with homework when they couldn't consult the book?

Some school board members' frustration with administrators was evident at Monday's board meeting.

"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 John Convertito said.

Board member Perry Liu asked, "Is this a game we're playing?"

The understatement of Monday's meeting may have been made by Deputy Superintendent Karen Parks when she told the board, "In our zeal to move forward, we may have made some mistakes."

Mistakes absolutely were made.

The most serious is the administrations utter lack of communication with the board -- from the moment they began privately discussing changes, then training teachers in new methods while keeping the board in the dark.

Had the changes been explained to the board in public session, it would have allowed the public a window into what was in store.

Instead the board -- and parents -- were blindsided.

School Superintendent David Title and his administrative team owe the board and the public a thorough explanation of how this all happened and which specific individuals are responsible.

Because what we've been told so far just doesn't add up.