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Parents Rise Up Against A New Approach to Math

Greg Barlow with his son Christian, 8, at their home in Prince William County. Before beginning home schooling, Christian was exposed to a controversial math curriculum that de-emphasizes memorization.
Greg Barlow with his son Christian, 8, at their home in Prince William County. Before beginning home schooling, Christian was exposed to a controversial math curriculum that de-emphasizes memorization. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Greg Barlow, an Air Force officer in the defense secretary's office at the Pentagon, was helping his 8-year-old son, Christian, one recent night with a vexing problem: What is 674 plus 249?

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The Prince William County third-grader did not stack the numbers and carry digits from one column to the next, the way generations have learned. Applying lessons from his school's new math textbook, "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space," Christian tried breaking the problem into easier-to-digest numbers.

But after several seconds, he got stumped. He drew lines connecting digits, and his computation amounted to an upside-down pyramid with numbers at the bottom. His father, in a teacherly tone, nudged him toward the old-fashioned method. "How would you do that another way?" Barlow asked.

In Prince William and elsewhere in the country, a math textbook series has fomented upheaval among some parents and teachers who say its methods are convoluted and fail to help children master basic math skills and facts. Educators who favor the series say it helps young students learn math in a deeper way as they prepare for the rigors of algebra.

The debate over "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space," a Pearson School series used in thousands of elementary classrooms, including some in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Howard counties, is one of the newer fronts in the math wars. Such battles over textbooks and teaching methods are fueled in part by the anxieties of parents who often feel powerless over their children's education, especially in subjects they know.

The curriculum, introduced in the 1990s and updated in a second edition issued last fall, offers one answer to the nation's increasingly urgent quest for stronger elementary math education. The nonprofit organization TERC, based in Cambridge, Mass., developed "Investigations" with support from the National Science Foundation.

Some experts and parents find it wanting. "There's very little substance. I read through all the kindergarten curriculum. It's wishy-washy," said Steve Santee, an engineer whose daughter Olivia is in first grade at Cedar Point Elementary School in Prince William. "My wife and I are very fortunate. She's a former math teacher, and we can teach her all the way up to calculus."

Learning Less by Heart

The program de-emphasizes memorization and drills and pushes students to use more creative ways to find answers, such as drawing pictures, playing games and using objects. Prince William officials say "Investigations," which cost the county more than $1 million, teaches students why an answer is correct, prepares them for algebraic concepts on the SAT and increases passing rates on state exams.

Carol Knight, Prince William's math supervisor, said that when children break down numbers into multiples of 10 and 100, their understanding of place value and "number sense" increases.

"Memorization will only carry you so far," Knight said. "With 'Investigations,' kids understand the real values of the numbers and are not doing shortcuts. When they multiply 23 times 5, they'll do five 20s to get 100, and then add five 3s to get 15, and they put that all together and get 115. What they've done is made actual use of the numbers."

Knight said Prince William revamped its elementary math in part to raise "embarrassing" SAT scores that were below national and state averages last year.

Prince William classes use "Investigations" from kindergarten through third grade, and there are plans to introduce it in fourth grade in the next school year and fifth grade after that.

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