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Topic: [ME] Connected Math Program: Portland, Oregon
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ME] Connected Math Program: Portland, Oregon
Posted: Apr 14, 1999 10:34 PM
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[Note: From Thomas Judson, with thanks ...]

Portland Oregonian, Monday April 12, 1999;

Big change in math education weighed

Portland's school board will decide tonight whether to switch elementary
and middle schools to a newfangled curriculum

By Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian staff

Picture a math class with no textbooks, no problem sets, no formulas and no
flashcards. Instead, envision math as a sort of brainstorming exercise, a
guided discovery of mathematical thinking arrived at through games,
discussions, mind-benders, even essay writing. That would be a big shift
-- for teachers, students, parents and potential employers. And it is just
what Portland educators are proposing for all the city's elementary and
middle schools come fall. The switch is driven by powerful national
forces, including the National Science Foundation and the National Council
of Teachers of Mathematics.

Portland's school board will decide tonight whether to stick with
traditional textbooks or switch to the newfangled math series. That choice
foreshadows what the rest of Oregon schools are likely to face when they
pick new math programs in three years. Proponents say the new methods will
produce a bumper crop of students who are competent in math, important for
a nation whose students' math skills rank near the bottom among developed
nations. But critics of the new approach, mostly parents and college
professors, say asking students to figure out math for themselves will
yield a worse muddle.

Committees of teachers, after anguishing over the question for months,
decided Portland should forgo math textbooks until high school and opt for
the unconventional new approach. Using the new series, which covers fewer
topics in greater depth and substitutes student problem-solving for teacher
lectures, will require more training, more expertise and more work for
teachers. It's also likely to panic some parents. But it's worth all
that, selection committee members decided. They are convinced the
discovery-laden, no-textbook, no-formulas method is the best way to get far
more kids far more skilled at math.

"Connected Math is really difficult to teach," said Karen Moloney, a math
teacher at Portland's Fernwood Middle School. "But it is the best program
I've ever seen for children." Students understand and retain math skills
they discover for themselves but tend to forget formulas and equations they
are spoon-fed, said Steve Palumbo, a math teacher at Gregory Heights Middle
School. "We really believe the kids are going to come out of this with
better skills and better understanding."

For instance, a traditional textbook begins its lesson on equivalent
fractions by explaining how to multiply both numerator and denominator by
the same number. It then gives an example, showing that one-third becomes
two-sixths -- its equivalent -- when multiplied by two over two. Students
then work 20 or 30 problems, changing fractions into an equivalent and
checking to see whether the fractions meet the equivalency test.

In contrast, Connected Math begins its sixth-grade lesson on equivalent
fractions with empty number lines. Students are led to see that one chunk
out of three and two chunks out of six are the same size. But their
teacher's refrain is not about multiplying numerator and denominator by the
same number. Instead, the teacher asks "why?" and again "why?" until
students discover the pattern for themselves. Nowhere does the book give
students the answer. And homework is typically a single problem.

Connected Math students learn decimals and percents all in the same lesson
and must make their case in writing for why ½, 0.5 and 50 percent all are
equivalent. The traditional textbook lesson on equivalent fractions takes
a day or two. Connected Math's lesson intermingling fractions, decimals and
percents takes five weeks. The weeks spent on the topic in sixth grade are
made up by not having to reteach fraction basics in grades seven and eight,
Moloney said. "My experience has been that they hang onto it better," she

Even fans of the two proposed programs, Connected Math for middle schools
and Investigations in Number, Data and Space for elementary schools,
concede the programs will flop if teachers don't get adequate training in
how to use them. Superintendent Ben Canada is adamant that the district
will provide that training, and the district also plans to provide teachers
with supplemental materials so that drill and practice don't get thrown out
the window.

Still, some teachers are concerned that the new math programs won't be a
good fit for all students. In California, where earlier versions of
discovery-based math programs were introduced in the mid-1990s, outraged
parents got schools and the state to make an about-face. "The program they
are considering for Portland and similar programs render the child
basically helpless," said Jamie Clopton, a San Diego psychologist who
helped found the pro-traditional math group Mathematically Correct.

"The person they are to turn to is their peer, who is just as baffled as
they are," Clopton said, recalling her daughter's experience with a math
program similar to what Portland is considering. Then they go to their
parents, and the parents say, 'What is this? This is like nothing I have
ever seen before.' There is no explanation, there are no examples, there
are no models to follow. It's more, 'Let's try it and see if it works.'
It's a very frustrating experience, for the child and for the parent."

The National Science Foundation has poured more than $65 million into its
eight-year effort to bring Investigations, Connected Math and 11 other math
programs to market. The resulting series are regarded as brilliant or
catastrophic -- and rarely anything in between.

"You see the dilemma we're faced with," said Andy Clark, Portland's chief
of math curriculum. It is ironic that Portland finds itself ahead of the
math curve for Oregon. That happened only because Portland is so far
behind. The cash-strapped Portland district has not adopted new
mathematics textbooks since 1989. Other Oregon districts picked new ones in
1995 and 1996. When Portland set out to have teachers select new series, it
ran smack into the programs incubated by the National Science Foundation.
With names such as MathScape and Math in Context, packed into colorful
boxes or zippered satchels, they don't look like regular math books and
certainly do not work like them.

But do they work at all? It seems clear they do not hurt. Test scores for
thousands of students in diverse districts that have tested the programs
show students do no worse as a result of undergoing the nontraditional

But studies showing clear advantages from the new programs are sparse so
far. Portland's math scores already are strong, besting the average for
Oregon and for most large urban districts around the country. Portland
needs a program that will improve performance, not merely maintain it,
Clark said.

The publishers of Connected Math say their best evidence comes from a 1996
study of about 2,000 middle school students who were taught Connected Math
and 1,000 matched students who used regular math books. Both sets of sixth-
and seventh-graders performed pretty much the same on a common standardized
test. Only in eighth grade did the Connected Math students surge ahead,
gaining more than a full year's skills in seven months.

Particularly persuasive to members of the selection committee was the
performance of Fernwood, the Portland middle school. Aided by a National
Science Foundation grant, the Northeast Portland middle school began using
Connected Math two years ago. Last year, its performance on state math
tests was turning heads. Fernwood students made about 30 percent more
progress than Portland middle-schoolers as a whole. Almost half the
school's students performed two years higher than their grade level.
Connected Math also seemed to help move students off the lower tiers: Only
25 percent of Fernwood eighth-graders missed the state math benchmark,
compared with 37 percent at other Oregon schools with similar socioeconomic

Moloney, the Fernwood teacher, admits Connected Math was tough to take on.
"For me, it's really difficult to stand back and allow them to struggle
through these very challenging problems, to look at it and work it and work
it for themselves," Moloney said. "But I see that what they learn this way
sticks with them, rather than flying out of their heads as soon as they
walk out of here."

Fernwood sixth-grader Marcy Johnstone said Connected Math can be hard for
students, too. "But it's a challenge, so that's better," she said.

Oregon employers such as Intel Corp., which are struggling to find enough
mathematically competent workers, applaud Portland's plan. "We very much
favor a mathematics curriculum that tries to focus on things in greater
depth rather than peanut-buttering all over the world of mathematics," said
Wendy Hawkins, Intel's education relations manager.

If the new math series is approved by the board tonight, Portland will be
among the first large districts in the nation to adopt it as its sole path
for teaching math in every elementary and middle school, said Spud Bradley
of the National Science Foundation. And that could be politically risky.

"There are parents who want their children to have the same experience they
did when they took mathematics in school," he said. "It's really a
political issue and not an educational one, but it can really bite.
Betsy Hammond covers Portland Public Schools. You can reach her at
503-294-7623 or at


Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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