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Topic: Portland, Oregon Update
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Portland, Oregon Update
Posted: May 11, 1999 6:10 PM
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[Note: Thanks to Betsy Hammond for calling this article to my attention;
also a colleague on the west coast.]
The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), Tuesday, May 11, 1999

New math programs get board approval

Portland elementary and middle schools will change the way math is taught,
making the district one of the nation's largest to do so

By Betsy Hammond

A unanimous Portland School Board decided Monday that all the city's
elementary and middle schools should switch to a distinctive new way of
teaching math that relies heavily on student discovery, not teacher

The vote makes Portland one of the biggest school districts in the nation
to designate the new approach to math instruction as the sole path for math
teaching in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Portland's use of the new series promises to be closely tracked by the many
vociferous fans and critics of such math programs nationwide, as well as by
other Oregon school districts. Most of them are scheduled to pick new math
books in three or four years.

"Those of us in other parts of Oregon are watching to see how this goes in
Portland," said Jim Specht, a Hillsboro High School math teacher and
president of the Oregon Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "If there are
parts of this program that work, we all want to make sure we learn from
that experience ... At the very least, we'll find out what doesn't work."

Board members said nothing about why they made their choice. Superintendent
Ben Canada, who twice delayed a vote to get more support for the programs,
said new information convinced him that the approach yields impressive
results when teachers are well-trained to use it.

Portland's decision is contingent on the Legislature allotting enough money
for education to avoid teacher layoffs in Portland -- something still in

If the Legislature earmarks too little money, the school board plans for
Portland schools to stick with current math programs.

Because of years of budget cutbacks, the district has not adopted new math
books for a decade. Instead, it uses a hodgepodge of approaches, and many
Portland students and classrooms have no math books at all.

The district has estimated it will cost $3 million to buy any new math
series and the needed calculators and hands-on math tools for the
district's 56,000 students. District officials also have said they would
have to spend about $700,000 on training for teachers if the new series is
to succeed.

The series that Portland adopted Monday, Connected Mathematics for middle
schools and Investigations in Number, Data and Space for elementary
schools, were developed at the behest of the National Science Foundation.
Both programs were strongly recommended by committees of teachers
representing most Portland schools.

The selection panels weighed traditional textbooks vs. the science
foundation-backed series and picked the latter. For high schools, they
picked a math program described as between the two approaches.

No parents were included on the selection panels, and a few questioned the
choice, asking for evidence the new series would improve performance.
Canada had delayed recommending the new series, saying he wanted to get
more public input and uncover more hard data on the new books' track

A hastily scheduled public hearing last month drew far more teachers than
parents. And at least one attendee, Duniway Elementary parent Patty
Blodgett, left the session "more hostile than when I went in. I felt like I
was in an infomercial for the program."

But other parents are wowed. "We need this adoption to pull the teaching of
mathematics together across our district," Susan Pfohman said.

Based in part on a large volume of calls and letters about the math choice,
some school board members said they wanted to have more public
participation and more public debate on textbook choices in the future.

One of the main reasons for the selection committees' choice was that the
new programs cover fewer topics in greater depth, said Andy Clark,
coordinator of math curriculum for Portland schools. The tendency of U.S.
math textbooks to go a mile wide but an inch deep year after year was cited
as one of the main reasons that U.S. students fare so poorly in comparison
with students in other developed nations on international math tests.

Portland teachers who have used the series or investigated them closely
also say that by having students figure out the underlying logic behind
math problem solving, rather than spoonfeeding them procedures and
formulas, the new math series improve the performance of both highly
capable math students and those who struggle with math.

Many studies have shown that students do no worse when taught the new,
discovery-laden approach. But studies showing that Connected Math and
Investigations yields measurably better math scores are sparse so far.
You can reach Betsy Hammond 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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