PA Coalition for World Class Math

Pelham Math

Ink By The Barrel: Towards Better Math in Pelham

Much has happened since my column seven weeks ago on Pelham's elementary math curriculum. What's next?

When I wrote a column on Pelham’s elementary math curriculum seven weeks ago, I did so with some trepidation. I wasn’t afraid of controversy or outrage. Hardly. I felt the greatest of all writer anxieties: I’d be ignored. The words “math” and “curriculum” in the headline? Instant turn-offs, right? Time to start reading the police blotter.

Boy was I wrong. By the rough measures I have available, the column on Investigations in Number, Data, and Space was the most popular I’ve written. It’s had the greatest number of reader comments, the second highest number of Facebook recommends, and I’m pretty sure it lasted at the top of Pelham Patch’s Most Popular Articles box longer than any other I’ve done (yes, that’s a box your columnist obsesses on).

Clearly, there are strong feelings out there about how we teach math in Pelham. As a result of the column, I met others who had, like me, toiled individually and anonymously trying to understand the curriculum, figure out what was really wrong with it, and then explain their concerns to Pelham educators. I discovered a vibrant discussion on the Facebook group Moms of Pelham. After the column (though not necessarily because of it), some went to the Oct. 17 board of education meeting to listen and to speak, though you probably read a great deal more about other issues discussed at that meeting. And a small ad-hoc group started doing deep and amazing research into Investigations. Leading it are Angela Burton, Jennifer Slattery and Luba Chernov.

There’s not room to report a tenth of the information here, so I’ll offer highlights. (A word about terms: Investigations is sold by publishing giant Pearson Education Inc.’s Pearson/Scott Foresman division, and was developed by TERC, a non-profit that most certainly is profiting from those sales. Investigations, TERC and Pearson tend to be used interchangeably.)

Two people doing research found the parent group STOP Taking Excessive Risks with our Children in Frederick, Maryland. The group has a website, stopterc.com, and helped elect a slate of school board members committed to removing Investigations, which they did. The website is a massive resource, 80-plus pages when printed out. Here’s just one why-you-should-worry-about-Investigations highlight:

Investigations abandons 'standard algorithms'. Over the entire K-5 years:

  • standard addition is 'taught' once (grade 4)
  • standard subtraction 'taught' once (grade 5)
  • standard multiplication 'taught' once (grade 5)
  • standard long division not taught at all

Only three sessions out of 959 (in all six years of K-5) teach standard algorithms[§4.4]. Because of this failure to teach 'standard algorithms', Investigations fails horribly to meet the:

  • National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) focal points for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division [§2.0]
  • National Mathematics Advisory Panel 2008 Final Report finding #11 regarding fluency with standard algorithms [§2.1].

Put in simplest terms, that means the math kids need for middle and high school and the rest of their lives is hardly taught—three lessons out of 959—or not at all—long division. I’d understood this as a concept from reading TERC’s materials, but the STOP TERC people actually counted (math is about counting after all). The numbers are stunning and frightening. Again, that website: http://www.stopterc.com/.

Next, Jennifer, a journalist during the daytime, interviewed Thomas Parker, professor of mathematics at Michigan State University and co-author of a textbook used to teach would-be teachers how to teach math. He addressed the strenuous efforts TERC puts into fighting parent groups, TERC’s bogus claims that research supports their methods, and why layering a bunch of other websites and worksheets onto Investigations (called supplementing) doesn’t work.

“They might also say they are doing a blended program to keep you happy, and they might say we’ll incorporate worksheets of drills,” said Parker in the interview. “But that’s completely inadequate. It does not actually teach anything because TERC doesn't actually teach math. TERC does one or two problems a week. No other math program does that little math, that slowly. The reason elementary students do multiplication problems is so they know what multiplication is and how to use it.”

Parker, a veteran observer of the math wars, also had good advice on the politics of getting change to happen. He said the Investigations books are cheap, and so loved by school boards around the country, and buying the curriculum allows districts to win large grants for professional development, some of which are not restricted to use on Investigations. The grant money is a powerful lure. But Parker advised against butting heads as a strategy for change:

“Just being confrontational is never, ever going to work. They will just put up a stockade. You have to do a lot of talking behind the scenes.”

Let’s change channels from websites and interviews to You Tube. Luba, who is founder and moderator of Moms of Pelham on Facebook, discovered this video (also available above) showing a parent addressing the Ridgewood, N.J., school board. The parent reads a statement by two mathematics professors that rips apart Investigations. For Pelham’s college name-dropping fans, those profs teach at Standford and Harvard. For the parents-should-just-shut-up faction on the school board, you will note people do stand up at meetings in other places and express themselves with the hope of making change happen. At the end of the video are links to other excellent—and scary, and I mean more than Halloween scary—videos on Investigations.

Luba and Jennifer followed up all the research with a very productive meeting with Peter Giarrizzo, Pelham’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and personnel, and Dr. Richard Limato, director of elementary education. Jennifer posted this report of the meeting on the Moms of Pelham board:

“Both listened, took the concerns seriously and committed to continuing the conversation and answering our (and all parents') questions and to working with parents and schools to address and look into concerns short- and long-term. We found them both to be quite open to the conversation about math and our kids and it sounds like they'd like to have more parents come and meet with them. My takeaway on that point was that many parents discuss concerns and ask questions at a school level and they might not hear about this because those tend to be more child-specific conversations, not bigger picture—making the additional direct communication with the district administration important and valuable. 

IMPORTANT: Mr. Giarrizzo says he will speak at the Nov. 7 board meeting about the concrete next steps he has planned for evaluating Investigations across the district.”

That is what I call good progress. We must offer an outstanding math education in Pelham. We need to be interested in change that takes us forward. In this way, we will transform education here in town, and inform the lives of our children.

Rich blogs at richzahradnik.com.