Loudoun Is Likely to Retain Program That Some Say Skimps on Math Basics

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

On the heels of a vote in Prince William County to keep a math textbook that has drawn criticism from some parents, a Loudoun County elementary math review committee appears likely to recommend that a similar curriculum stay in place in Loudoun in some form.

The committee has finished its review work and probably will issue its recommendations next month, said Sharon Ackerman, the Loudoun school district's assistant superintendent for instruction. Although the report has not been completed, several committee members indicated they are likely to recommend that the district continue an approach that blends traditional math instruction with creative problem-solving activities.

"There are a lot of possibilities," Ackerman said. "One is that we look at the value of the inquiry method and continue to employ that in our elementary program, along with what's thought of as the more regular textbook." Like many other school systems nationwide, Loudoun schools have started using a curriculum from Pearson Education called "Investigations in Numbers, Data, and Space" that aims to develop a deeper understanding of math concepts by emphasizing creative ways to find answers.

The possibility that the Investigations curriculum will stay has raised concerns among some Loudoun parents who think their children aren't learning basic math.

The committee, made up of teachers, parents and administrators, is trying to come up with guidelines for an effective elementary math program and hasn't focused exclusively on the use of the Investigations program. But that part of its review has drawn the most public attention.

Ackerman and others on the committee said that, above all, they found that the school system needed to do a better job telling parents what skills teachers were targeting with specific lessons.

That would echo the conclusion reached by school officials in Prince William, which started evening workshops last month for parents who wanted to learn how to help their children with Investigations homework. The Prince William School Board split 4 to 4 this month on a proposal that would have allowed parents to choose between Investigations and a more traditional math curriculum.

In Loudoun, kindergartners began using Investigations in 2006, but, Ackerman said, they had previously used a similar activity-based program. In 2007, all other elementary school math classes began incorporating two units of Investigations into each nine-week quarter. Each unit can take up to a week.

Investigations doesn't spend much time on rote memorization of subjects such as times tables. Proponents of the program say that its emphasis on creative problem-solving lays the groundwork for more complex topics such as algebra. Ackerman said that Loudoun's approach, in which traditional textbooks are still used most of the time, ensures that basics get covered.

That's not enough for parents who say that they've had to do extra tutoring at home.

"The thing that I see missing from Math Investigations is the knowledge of math facts," said Marc Shapiro, who has two children at Countryside Elementary School and who was in one of the Loudoun study's focus groups in December. "We do flash cards at home with our kids because they just aren't getting enough."

But some other parents said they thought Investigations addresses a gap in the math program. Suresh Narasimhan, a parent who is on the math review committee, said that the panel concluded that there was "a weak level" of problem-solving in the elementary math program and that Investigations -- or a similar reform-based textbook -- could fill that hole.

A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education looked at first-grade test scores in schools that used four kinds of textbooks and found that Investigations trailed in the comparison. But Cheryl Wimer, the administrator who oversees math instruction in Loudoun, said she thought that the study involved a small and unrepresentative sample of children and therefore was not applicable to Loudoun.

Ackerman cautioned that any proposals by the review committee for new textbooks or teaching approaches would be difficult to implement in the current budget climate.

"We will have recommendations," she said, "and then we will have reality."

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