[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
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 lectures.
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 doubt.
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 records.
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 <firstname.lastname@example.org> ************************************************************ * Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: email@example.com