PA Coalition for World Class Math

                      Greece School District to Drop 'Reform Math' in Elementary Schools

Meaghan M. McDermott • Staff writer • March 23, 2009

The Greece Central School District is dropping an elementary school math program that's been the center of a decade-long national controversy over how children should learn mathematics.

At issue has been whether memorization of math facts and algorithms should be de-emphasized in favor of letting children explore math concepts without the strict boundaries of traditional math teaching methods.

Across the country, communities have been at odds with school leaders over so-called "reform math" approaches that critics deride as "fuzzy." They say the method leaves students unprepared for algebra, dependent on calculators and never provides a foundation in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Reform supporters say nontraditional approaches to math make learning easier and more enjoyable for students who are then better able to remember and apply math concepts.

Tom Mariano, Greece's director of mathematics and science, said both sides have their points.

"But people seem to feel that reform math or nonreform math are polar opposites," he said. "But they're not, really. Both want the same thing, proficiency in math. The argument is about the how of getting there."

Come September, Greece students will be getting there with a program called Math Expressions, which a February report from the U.S. Institute of Education Sciences said resulted in greater math achievement than the program the school district has been using since 2000.


Nearly 10 years ago, the Greece Central School District adopted a reform math program called Investigations in Number, Data and Space, said Mariano. The district's current program — introduced nationally over the past 20 years and locally over the past 10 — has long been derided by critics as fuzzy math because of its nontraditional approach to instruction. Children are encouraged to use hands-on methods to solve problems and are not required to memorize math facts and algorithms.

Reform math and its most popular textbooks — Investigations for elementary schoolers, Connected Mathematics for middle-schoolers and Core-Plus Mathematics for high schools — generated parent outcry from Washington to Maine, and even sparked a group of Penfield parents to protest their district's introduction of the program.

Reform curricula have been in use in Brighton, Penfield, Greece, Rush-Henrietta, Rochester, Fairport and East Irondequoit since the late 1990s.

Brighton is in the midst of re-evaluating its overall math program and is conducting an online survey seeking parent input.

Mariano said Math Expressions doesn't jettison every aspect of reform math but integrates more creative learning methods with more traditional algorithms, and also incorporates some methods of so-called "Singapore Math."

That program is highly traditional and is the national program used in Singapore, where children are consistently ranked at or near the top of the world in the annual Trends in International Mathematics and Science

Greece's new program "is like Singapore math written for American students," said Mariano.

With the decade mark approaching for Investigations, the Board of Education directed administrators in February 2007 to look for a new math program. A committee of administrators, parents, teachers and community members studied six math programs for a few months, with the intention of picking two for further study.

But Math Expressions received such high marks from all stakeholders that the committee decided no further study was needed.

"The program has a really nice balance of hands-on learning and traditional," said Erin Eldridge, a first-grade teacher and member of the math committee. "I really like that there's such an emphasis on base-10 in the program."

The Board of Education approved spending more than $400,000 next year to offer Math Expressions in all prekindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms.

"I'm looking forward to a better math program," said Julia VanOrman, board president.

Hands-on learning

The need for better math education is clear, and not just in Greece.

According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Education's National Mathematics Advisory Panel, eight in 10 American adults can't explain how to calculate the interest on a loan. More than two-thirds can't calculate miles per gallon on a trip and nearly 60 percent don't know how to calculate a 10 percent tip for waiters.

When it comes to younger Americans, the report also has bad news: About one-third couldn't accurately identify a third of a rectangle and almost half couldn't solve a word problem that required dividing fractions.

On last year's state assessment tests, 81 percent of all students met or exceeded standards. In Greece, 84 percent met or exceeded standards.

"I wouldn't say the (previous) program failed, but what became clear is that there were plenty of things we in the district didn't do well enough when it came to the program, such as teacher training," Mariano said. "An admitted weakness of that program is its teacher-friendliness. It requires a lot of initial training and we didn't provide intensive enough ongoing support for our teachers."

He said the district won't repeat that error.

During a recent teacher training day in Greece, author Suzy Koontz danced in front of a cafeteria full of elementary school teachers.

Tapping her toes, then knees, then hips, elbows and shoulders, in sing-song, she counted by threes.

Koontz, who has written Multiply With Me and Learning to Multiply Can be Fun, is a former insurance actuary turned educational consultant who believes strongly in teaching young elementary school children to "skip count" as a way to introduce the concept of multiplication. She advocates teaching this with physical movements linked to counting.

"When children learn the dance moves, they remember the patterns of the numbers," she said, adding that strong foundation in skip counting is key in understanding multiplication tables. "The best part is that kids absolutely love it. It's so much fun to be learning and dancing."

Many different ways

Like having Koontz training teachers to make math fun and engaging through song and dance, switching to a new math program is all about recognizing there are many different ways children learn, said Mariano. And, by paying attention to those differences, educators can help make sure children have a strong understanding of math.

"Confidence is the biggest part of it," said Mariano. "And kids become confident when they see success. If they have the sense that they can't do something, it's self-defeating."