PA Coalition for World Class Math

                                    Parents Lobby to Overhaul Charlotte Math Program

  By Molly Walsh • Free Press Staff Writer • May 17, 2009

Mike Cazayoux, bond trader and father of four, chose to settle in Charlotte when he moved to Vermont from New Jersey several years ago partly because the public school in the small, upscale town just south of Burlington has a good reputation and high test scores.

So he was dismayed when his eldest daughter's math instruction at Charlotte Central School didn't seem to add up. The curriculum, Every Day Math, stressed breadth over depth and offered an array of confusing approaches to what should be basic lessons in division and multiplication, he says.

Cazayoux grew worried that his daughter was not mastering the basics, so he did what he says many other parents in Charlotte do: He paid for private tutoring.

It helped: His daughter, now in ninth-grade, caught up and is enrolled in the most advanced math track at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.

But Cazayoux doesn't consider the problem solved. He's among a group of parents lobbying for an overhaul of the math program at Charlotte Central, a kindergarten through eighth-grade public school. They've attended many meetings, assembled studies and largely gained the support of the School Board in a bid to move away from what they see as a "fuzzy math" curriculum to a more focused program that starts with basic skills and carefully builds.

Whose decision?

The debate has been animated. Some teachers like the current math program, others are less enthusiastic, and there's no agreement on a replacement. At School Board meetings, some teachers have suggested that parents and the board are tackling decisions that should be left to educators.

Cazayoux disagrees with that suggestion. "I'm enraged that they would imply that the parents don't have a say in a math program," he said. "How dare they?"

A May 6 School Board meeting went on for almost six hours and saw 10 motions surface about the math issue, minutes show. The only one that passed was to delay action.

Colleen Brady, a first- and second-grade teacher who has worked at the school for 29 years, is among members of the faculty who feel the School Board is stepping beyond its proper role. "I'm not really sure it's the School Board's business to be taking as much of a micro-management view of the program. I think it is more the School Board's job to be looking at policy and be looking at assessment data with a big view."

Also, she said, math performance at the school is strong, and there are other subjects, such as writing, which are more deserving of focus and new resources. Brady disagrees with critics of Every Day Math. "I think it's a very rigorous program. I like that. I think the program emphasizes understanding the underlying content of mathematics. It doesn't just teach computation or superficial processes."

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Charlotte Central is in some ways an unlikely battleground for a math war. The school routinely scores near the top on the state mandated standardized test known as the New England Common Assessment Program. In 2008, the most recent year for data, 88 percent of students at the school met or exceeded the standard on the math NECAP, compared to 66 percent statewide.

"Whatever they've been doing has been working pretty well," said Doug Harris, executive director of the Vermont Institutes, which provides research, training and program evaluation to schools. "Based on test scores in the state, they are always in the top five."

Parents who want change say there are cracks in the good-looking facade. This year, 10 percent of Charlotte students were assigned to pre-algebra, which some consider remedial math, when they enrolled in ninth grade at Champlain Valley Union High School. Last year, the figure was 21 percent, according to school data.

That's too many, some parents say, especially in a wealthy school district where last year only 3 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 29 percent statewide. Furthermore, math scores among the school's small population of low-income students are much lower than for the rest of the student body.

Push for algebra

Some parents want to see an increase in the number of students who take algebra in eighth grade and thus have time to take advanced math such as calculus in high school. This year, about 33 percent of CVU freshmen from Charlotte Central are enrolled in geometry and another 6 percent are enrolled in an advanced math seminar, meaning at least 39 percent took Algebra I in middle school.

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The drive to make algebra the norm in eighth-grade is a national movement. Many experts say this is a critical step in the bid to improve math performance so the U.S. can compete with countries such as China and India. But others warn against pushing students into courses they aren't prepared for. Between 1986 and 2008, the percentage of 13- year-olds nationally in algebra or higher level math increased from 16 percent to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Education Department.

The Chittenden South Supervisory Union appears to picking up the challenge. The school system, with schools in Charlotte, Shelburne, Hinesburg and Williston, recently issued new math goals. They aim to increase relevancy and rigor; prepare all students for success in Algebra I in eighth grade; and increase enrollment in higher level math courses in high school.

Hinesburg, Williston and Shelburne will pilot new first grade through fifth grade math programs this fall. The two programs that will be tested are Investigations II Math and Bridges, according to Chittenden South superintendent Elaine Pinckney's most recent newsletter.

Charlotte was left off the list. The School Board voted against piloting Investigations and Bridges on May 6 after several board members and parents raised concerns that the two programs are similar to Every Day Math, and thus no better. School system administrators suggested there are key differences. The proposed programs are more focused and put more emphasis on mastering skills before moving on, while Every Day Math takes a "spiraling" approach that assumes students who don't grasp a skill on the first go will have another chance later.

Over arching the discussion is an influential report published last year by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel that urged schools to avoid "mile wide and inch deep" math programs and adopt focused K-8 math programs that stress proficiency with whole numbers, fractions, aspects of geometry and measurements.

Charlotte School Board chair Clyde Baldwin asked school system administrators to submit a "traditional" math program as a pilot option by May 26, minutes from the May 6 meeting show. At least one teacher stated that the board's actions showed a lack of confidence in the faculty.

Efforts to reach Baldwin for comment were unsuccessful.

Charlotte Central principal Monica Smith, who is retiring this year, did not respond to requests for comment on the math debate. Pinckney and Chittenden South curriculum director Jude Newman were at a conference Thursday and Friday and unavailable for comment.

Meanwhile, parents continue to weigh in. Yvonne Janssen-Heininger, a Charlotte mother of two and professor of pathology at the University of Vermont, would like to see a new math program at the school that embraces the benchmarks in the National Mathematics Advisory Panel Report.

She's encouraged by the work the School Board is doing. "It's a start. We're not there yet. A lot of parents are concerned about this. We all want a solution now."

Contact Molly Walsh at 660-1874 or