Frederick Parents Decry Math Reforms As 'Fluff'

May 17, 2009|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Changes in math curriculum don't usually stir parents to political action, but in Frederick County, the introduction of a new math textbook has caused a minor revolt by county residents, 600 of whom have signed a petition to persuade the county school board to return to a more traditional approach.

"Our primary objection is the lack of solid math content. It has been replaced with fluff," said Tom Neumark, a Frederick resident whose daughter will be a kindergartener next year.

The battle these parents are having with the county is just one part of a larger discussion taking place around the nation and among federal education officials over how math should be taught. Some education experts are calling for states to adopt national standards that would narrow the focus of the math curriculum and make American students more competitive internationally. Maryland is on the verge of reviewing its standards and deciding whether to make changes.

On the grass-roots level, Stacey McGiffin is part of the parents group that would like to see changes at the state level. She says her second-grade son is bored with the math he is doing in a new curriculum called TERC. She and other parents say the program requires teachers to spend too much time explaining why math works and not enough time having students practice how to do problems. "TERC takes discovery learning to an extreme. In trying to make math 'fun,' TERC fails to teach the fundamentals that will ultimately prepare kids for algebra and beyond," McGiffin said.

TERC uses an approach called reform math that has grown popular in the past decade. Used in thousands of classrooms, according to its creators, TERC stresses conceptual thinking rather than a more traditional approach of solving problems. Frederick County schools adopted TERC in its elementary grades this school year after having used it at Lincoln Elementary School for several years.

A number of school systems in the Baltimore area have chosen to use textbooks that attempt to blend both methods and have not chosen to use TERC exclusively as Frederick has. In Baltimore County, teachers supplement a more traditional textbook with TERC. Anne Arundel County uses a similar approach, approving TERC only as a supplement, but no schools there have chosen to use it.

Such programs have come under scrutiny as national leaders suggest that math programs in foreign countries where students are most proficient give students more practice at solving difficult equations, and they do them at an earlier age.

Those views were supported by a multiyear study done for the U.S. Department of Education that indicated that TERC was the least successful of four math programs studied. In fact, the results gave high marks to one reform math textbook series and to another traditional approach. TERC spokesman Ken Maher said the study used an early version of TERC and that the program may do better later.

The choice of textbooks, which is left up to local school districts, is likely to come under scrutiny if the state school board takes action this year to make the changes that are being pushed nationally.

Donna Watts, who is in charge of math curriculum for the state, said an outside group called Achieve was hired to review the math standards. Achieve's review was completed in February, but Watts had said the document would not be released to the school board until fall, after a full review. After The Baltimore Sun filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the document to be released, the department announced it would make the Achieve report public after the state school board receives a copy at its May meeting.

Watts said the Achieve report is not calling for major revisions to the state standards but rather "polishing."

Frederick County Associate Superintendent Bonnie Ward, who was involved in the selection of TERC, said the county based its choice on the success it had at Lincoln, which saw scores move up significantly over several years. She said the county is holding meetings for parents to better understand their children's homework.

Nevertheless, some Frederick County parents say they will be teaching their children math from different textbooks so that they don't fall behind.

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