Math Classes At Elementary Schools Prompt Parents' Outcry

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

A group of Prince William County parents is mounting a campaign to repeal a new elementary school math curriculum, using an Internet discussion group and an online petition to gather support and fuel criticism.

The group, whose members include parents from such elementary schools as Westridge, Ashland and Springwoods as well as teachers from various schools, plans to present the Prince William County School Board in February with its petition, which has about 500 names. Parents in the group, whose Web site ( http://www.pwcteachmathright.com) lists several of their complaints, say that the Investigations curriculum is putting their children behind grade level and is too convoluted.

The group's formation comes right after the school system presented a year-long study of the curriculum that showed 80 percent of second-graders and 70 percent of first-graders are proficient on all 10 subtests of the Stanford Diagnostic Mathematics Test. The school system wants to continue studying the program and incorporate data from student performance on the state Standards of Learning exams.

School Board member Julie C. Lucas (Neabsco) said in an interview that she wants to examine the program inside a classroom to assess its effectiveness. She added that she has been hearing positive reviews from at least one principal in her district but that she wants to withhold making public comments until she visits schools.

The Investigations program has been undergoing a phased-in implementation since the School Board adopted its materials in 2006. In the 2006-07 academic year, kindergarten through second grade started the program; this year, third-graders began it; and next year, fourth-graders will use the material.

Investigations teaches children new ways of learning mathematics and solving problems. For instance, a student may not need to learn how to add 37 and 23 by stacking the figures on top of each other, and carrying the numbers. They may learn to add up the tens and then combine the seven and three to arrive at 60.

"When they first rolled this out, it sounded great at the time. I had faith that school officials knew what they were doing," said Alexis Miller, 42, who helps spearhead the anti-Investigations group and has two daughters at Westridge Elementary School. "But then I started seeing my daughter have difficulty doing basic math functions. I started questioning it."

Miller said she connected with other disgruntled parents at a School Board meeting in December. Soon, they devised the idea of a petition. She got frustrated on a recent day when her second-grade daughter complained that she did not want to do her homework. Miller said the work required her daughter to put a combination of stickers on a grid -- each sticker valued with a different number -- so that the total equaled 45.

"This was an incredibly futile exercise. She knows how to count to 45. My kindergartener can do a lot of homework that my second-grader is doing," Miller said.

School Board Vice Chairman Michael Otaigbe (Coles), who voted to approve the program and has visited Investigations classes regularly, said in an interview that he thinks the program deepens a student's knowledge of mathematics, beyond rote memorization. "With the old way of teaching math, you have a class of 30 students, and maybe three or four students understand what's really going on," he said. "What I see are students actively engaged in learning math. I see students defending their answers and solutions to problems."

Otaigbe, who serves as academic dean of students at the Woodbridge campus of Strayer University, added that it can be difficult for parents who he said may not want to be open to material that they do not know. He said he welcomes the parents' petition and hopes it can prompt a conversation about how to improve the school system's math programs. "We will look at it and discuss it," he said. "I don't want to dismiss it as a wasted effort."


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