Five years ago, Des Moines school officials replaced traditional elementary math textbooks with colorful new books rich in literature, geographical references and hands-on activities.
The new curriculum was billed as math students' salvation. Youngsters would leave elementary school with a better understanding of mathematical concepts. They would be better prepared for middle- school math. Test scores would soar.
That hasn't happened, critics say.
Many Des Moines elementary students are being short-changed when it comes to math, said Des Moines board member Marc Ward. Students are leaving elementary school without mastering basic concepts, such as multiplication and division. Less than half have a strong enough math background to pass algebra, fast becoming a required course in high schools nationwide.
"There are basic skills students need to have in the early grades, and they are not getting it with the curriculum we now have," Ward said.
Parent Kimberly Baudino said Des Moines' students lack a strong math foundation.
"This new book is all pictures and talks a lot about working together as a group," said Baudino. "It's ridiculous that these kids are not learning the math skills they need to have."
Board President Harold Sandahl and Ward last week pushed school administrators to make algebra a required high school course next fall. Administrators balked, saying if algebra were required, many students would fail. Currently, about 70 percent of Des Moines' high schoolers take algebra; 40 percent fail, board members were told.
"We are working on the elementary math curriculum so that in three years we will have a math curriculum in place so that not only will students be required to take algebra but they will take it and be successful," Jerry Wadden, Des Moines' chief academic officer, told the board. "We need to build the curriculum below" algebra.
Added Superintendent Eric Witherspoon: "That's what we don't have now."
Witherspoon and Wadden backed away from their comments about the elementary math curriculum in a subsequent interview. Wadden said it hadn't yet been determined whether the third-through fifth-grade math curriculum would be revamped. A committee of elementary math teachers is studying the issue, he said. A decision is expected in the spring.
Avon Crawford, who teaches at Brook-Lucas Elementary School, strongly supports the elementary math textbook and curriculum. She said her students are "much better problem-solvers than they ever have been before. We don't have pages and pages of problems to do."
Board member Nadine Hogate said it may be more practical for the district to take a middle-of-the-road approach to elementary math. "Hands-on stuff is OK, but sometimes it's essential to learn things by rote, too."
Regardless of what happens to the elementary math curriculum, Wadden and Witherspoon said it would be three years before they recommended requiring algebra in high school.
Sandahl and Ward aren't content to wait. They want the algebra requirement next fall. Students who struggle could get extra help, they said.
Both also want the "new" elementary math textbooks replaced with more traditional texts. They believe the textbook and the hands-on teaching style it emphasizes are why students struggle in math.
The book, published by Houghton Mifflin, encourages the use of calculators and teaches students to solve problems through estimations and hands-on work. The book has few "drill and skill" problems, Sandahl said. Instead, there are sections such as "Rain Forest Math," which asks students to figure how many acres of a rain forest get cleared away each hour.
The textbook also jumps from one concept to another, Sandahl and other critics say. In the first 100 pages of the fourth-grade book, for example, students learn how to calculate volume, estimate and round numbers, figure out concepts of time, and measure items.
When the new math books were purchased five years ago for $326,000, Sandahl said, board members were told there would be so much improvement in students' math abilities that fewer remedial classes would be needed at the middle schools. Instead, the past two years have seen an increase in remedial lessons, including after- school tutoring at each middle school and an expansion of middle- school summer school.
Results of the standardized tests called Iowa Tests of Basic Skills show no growth in math skills. They also show no significant declines.
A district report nearly two years ago showed nearly half of Des Moines' elementary schools failed to meet the district goal of having 70 percent of students earn at least a "C" on district tests.
"We're off-track in math and we need to fix it," Sandahl said.
Wadden said it is unfair to say that faulty elementary math lessons are the reason some middle-school students need remedial help. "We've always had remediation and we always will," he said. "Remedial math and the after-school tutoring was not brought about because of this math series."
A Lot of Reading
Marion Eppright, a vice principal at Edmunds Academy of Fine Arts, said the textbook has little emphasis on basic skills. Plus, "there's a lot of reading involved in it," said Eppright, who taught math until this school year and frequently used the district's old textbook. "Many students have reading problems. That makes it difficult to understand the (math) problem."
Pleasant Hill Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Sue Stanley also is frustrated by the new book. "It's a pretty book with pretty pictures, but it doesn't teach math."
Newton school officials had similar concerns about the textbook, which it purchased about six years ago. Some teachers were concerned that students weren't learning basic math facts, said Tom Hoover, Newton's director of curriculum.
The district recently bought supplemental materials from the publisher that reinforced basic math facts, Hoover said.
The textbook was developed in the early 1990s and "isn't dissimilar to other programs at that time," said Margaret Sherry, director of Houghton Mifflin's media relations. Now "we're seeing a shift in preferences."
The company's new math series has "more problems and less text. It provides a more balanced math program," Sherry said. ----------- Reporter Kathy A. Bolten can be reached at (515) 284-8283 or email@example.com ----------- Illustration: Kelly Gipple, center, works with Kathy Leothi, left, and Michelle Rockwell on math skills at Weeks Middle School in Des Moines. Caption: DOUG WELLS/The Register ----------- Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission. ***********************************************************
Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618) 453-4244 Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office) (618) 457-8903 (home) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org