Tuesday, August 12, 2008

RFR - Parents concerned with latest math curriculum

Here's the timeline. First, test students randomly with little idea of the actual goals. Base the test generally on things kids should know ("which kids" is never really delineated - those going to calculus their senior year or those going to the tech center for cabinet making). Make sure the kids don't care about it by claiming the test doesn't count. Raise a big stink about the resulting scores.

Then, this year, introduce the new curriculum. Following that, change the testing so that we don't have a real baseline to judge whether this is an improvement or not. Only choose schools that got lucky so you can claim success. If too many schools fail, claim that you need more time for the teachers to "learn" the curriculum.

Five years from now, change to block scheduling. Repeat "reform" rhetoric and process.

By LAURA DIAMOND / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia parents were outraged after thousands of students failed statewide math exams in May.

Now with the start of a new school year, parents fear for their children as the state expands the new math curriculum to high schools.

For more information on Georgia's new math curriculum, go to: http://georgiastandards.org/math.aspx.

Fayette County parent Wendy Ashabranner worries how her son will handle this new math when he starts at Fayette County High on Monday. He was among the 38 percent of the state's eighth-graders who failed the state's new, redesigned math exam, which was based on harder material.

While parents and teachers expected some students to struggle with the new math, they were shocked by the high failure rates.

"It's a trust factor, and I'm very leery of trusting the state," she said. "I know they're hoping these new standards will work, but what if it backfires? It's our kids who will pay the price. Why are they using our kids as guinea pigs?"

New curriculum

After years of criticism that the state's math curriculum was too weak, the Georgia Department of Education drastically changed the way students learn the subject. Officials adopted an "integrated" design, which weaves elements of algebra, geometry and statistics into a single math class, rather than teaching each separately. Elementary-school students use more hands-on activities to learn about numbers, geometry, multiplication and division. Middle school students learn some of the algebra previously taught in high school.

State schools Superintendent Kathy Cox said the new curriculum will better prepare students for college and jobs.

Some parents were so bothered by the changes they formed Georgia Parents for Math. They accuse the state of not providing enough training or classroom resources. They say more emphasis should be placed on math theory and basic concepts.

More parents joined the battle, anxious because failing math in high school would make it difficult for their children to graduate and almost impossible to get into a top college.

Meeting standards

The state began rewriting its curriculum for all subjects about five years ago after education groups, teachers and parents complained the old standards were too vague and broad and caused Georgia's poor performance on national exams.

The new standards were developed by teachers, college professors and curriculum specialists. The math follows the integrated approach used in Japan and other countries. For example, Georgia's high school freshmen will take "Mathematics I: Algebra/Geometry/Statistics" while they used to take just algebra or just geometry.

Martha Reichrath, deputy superintendent for the state Education Department, said the new lessons explain why students need math, whether to determine business profits or find the surface area of an object.

"We have not come up with some foreign math," Reichrath said. "It is an enriched math. Our students will do better with this math. I do believe we will be the national leader in math."

Georgia is the only state using a pure integrated math. The new standards have received high marks from different education and business groups.

But will it work?

"Is Georgia right? It's too early to tell," said Francis "Skip" Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College in Maryland and a member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

Fennell said other states are struggling with how to teach math. Students must understand fractions, decimals and other prerequisites before they can master algebra, which is considered a gatekeeper to success in college and the work force, he said.

Georgia's math does not provide enough of the basic concepts students need, said Tammy Lucas, a founding member of Georgia Parents for Math. The group has about 500 members from across the state.

Time of adjustment

The state's new system requires math teachers to act more as facilitators, meaning they lecture less and use fewer drills. Students must demonstrate what they know and show how they reached their answers.

Teachers say the new method is an adjustment.

"These math standards are new to us, too," said Annette Muhammad, a math teacher at Washington High in Atlanta. "There will be days when we all want to pull our hair out. But we're going to work hard to make sure we get this right."

Teachers have attended training sessions this summer to learn the new material. State officials say test scores will improve as teachers get used to it.

Those promises provide little consolation to the students who are the first to get the new curriculum.

"You can tell when your teachers are doing something new and they don't like it or don't understand it," said Evan Champion, Ashabranner's son. "I hope they spend more time explaining the units more carefully and take more time answering our questions instead of saying, 'We don't have time,' and then moving on to the next unit."

More for parents, too

The ninth-grade math course has six units, so teachers will have enough time to spend on each, said Janet Davis, the state's program manager for math.

Schools can offer a math support course that students take in addition to the regular math class, Davis said. Students would take this class instead of an elective, such as band or art.

Some parents say all the changes mean they must pay closer attention to their child's assignments.

"We'll be talking about what she did in math every night, and I'm going to monitor everything she's doing," said Eddie Bruce, a Cartersville father whose daughter just started ninth grade. "If you're a parent, you're worried about math."

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