School Board to Study New Math Curriculum

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

After months of facing increasing scrutiny from elementary school parents about a new math curriculum, Prince William County School Board members said they are scheduling a work session in May to discuss the program's future.

School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large) said the panel wants to learn more about the math curriculum, called "Investigations in Number, Data and Space." School Board members appear to be mixed about the program's effectiveness, and Johns said he would like to postpone any decisions about keeping, cutting or scaling back the program until results from the state Standards of Learning (SOL) exams are released later this year.

"I am going to be looking for a significant increase in our scores because the program does increase the workload for parents," said Johns, who has a third-grade child in the program. "If we are going to require that of our parents, then parents should be getting a return and significant increases in test scores."

The curriculum, which emphasizes more creative ways to solve math problems rather than rely solely on memorization, is being gradually introduced in Prince William. Last year, second-graders got the program, followed this year with third-graders. In the next two years, the program is scheduled to roll out for fourth- and fifth-graders.

But third-graders' parents began rising up against it, after many said they were frustrated that their children could not solve basic math equations -- 27 plus 54, for example -- fast and easy.

Prince William educators have been teaching children to solve such problems many different ways, including by breaking the numbers down. For example, instead of stacking the numbers and carrying digits from one column to the next, students would add 20 plus 50; then add 7 plus 4; and finally add up those two figures to reach 81.

School officials say the curriculum increases students' comprehension of numbers and how they work and will pay off significantly when they learn algebra and take SATs.

In response to some of the criticisms, school officials have posted information on a school system Web site,, including videos and reports called "Clarifying Misconceptions About Investigations in Number, Data and Space."

On the main school system web site,, a video shows Superintendent Steven L. Walts at an early March School Board meeting explaining: "Teachers need to be able to make professional decisions to use additional materials or strategies. . . . We are using other math strategies to help our students and have for some time. These continue to be perfectly acceptable and encouraged."

Alexis Miller, an elementary school parent who helped launch a petition and a Web site,, to protest the program, said it's unclear which schools are using additional materials such as flashcards and memorization.

"It varies widely. I know in our school and in my daughter's class, I still have never seen one piece of supplementation," she said. "But other kids in third grade, they are seeing some worksheets come home with drills and flashcards."

Miller said she hopes her coalition can present a report to the School Board, before the May work session, that outlines parents' concerns with their own research into the new curriculum.

Johns said that parents have given "us plenty to think about it" but that he was unsure how much more research would sway him until he sees the SOL scores.

"My wife and I have been dealing with this as a parent. It's different," Johns said. "We've been learning to adapt."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company