Portland schools' new math curriculum stirs ire, but officials like results
by: tribune graphic,

Two students stand in front of Caralee Thygeson's classroom at Madison High School, positioning their feet at certain spots against a measuring stick taped to the floor.

'Can you see her eyes in the mirror?' Thygeson asks the boy, who shakes his head and shuffles his feet forward a couple of inches, looking for his classmate's eyes to appear in the mirror that's affixed to the floor a few feet between them. He holds his notebook with his calculations to the side.

'Now can you?' Thygeson asks. She asks several times, prompting the boy to move until the mirror reflects his classmate. 'Now squawk like a chicken,' Thygeson reminds him, since he is playing the role of the hypnotist and the other student is his subject.

'Squawk,' the boy ekes out, self-consciously, prompting giggles from the class.

This isn't an acting class. It's math class. Geometry, for grades nine through 11.

It's also the new way of teaching math in Portland's public high schools this year, after the district adopted a new, controversial curriculum called College Preparatory Mathematics for algebra, geometry and algebra II.

After a year-and-a-half process, the district has scrapped the traditional math of years past in favor of the new math curriculum - some call it reform math; critics call it 'fuzzy math' - which is designed to help kids find their own solutions and better apply the mathematics to the real world.

Many like the new math. But there's a growing dissatisfaction among parents, teachers and students who are concerned that it doesn't work for all high schoolers, that its approach is confusing and causes students to seek help from outside tutoring.

'The book just expects you to know stuff - like equations that we would only know because the teacher would have taught us,' said Debbie Gordon, a parent of four daughters in Portland Public Schools. 'He didn't.'

Many parents are still stung by the fact that they didn't even know the new math was happening; the district's public involvement process last year was limited to a couple of parent advisory groups.

'I understand that this is a reform, that this is a progressive school district,' said Naomi Segal Dietz, a Lincoln High School parent who hired a tutor to help her daughter, who is struggling in algebra II this year.

'But I think the parents should be brought in on this, given the option of direct teaching, because not everything works for everybody,' she says. 'And I'd like to know where (the curriculum) came from.'

District leaders say the initiative was necessary, since high school math performance is lagging. More than half of the district's 10th-graders did not meet state benchmarks in the 2005-06 school year.

By contrast, Portland's elementary and middle schools have used a standardized math curriculum - also 'discovery-based,' another term used to describe the new high school model - for the past eight years with dramatic results.

The curriculum has 'led to achievement results, because things done systematically produce large results,' said Andy Clark, the district's math coordinator. 'We think in high schools, the lack of systematic teaching has hurt us.'

Clearly, math's a hot button

Finding the best way to teach math to all students is a debate parents, politicians and educators are having nationwide.

Many parents in Beaverton recently lashed out against their curriculum - similar to the new one in Portland's high schools - which was adopted two years ago. The district is investigating the complaints.

Utah recently scrapped a similar math program after complaints reached the state Legislature. And parents in the state of Washington have formed a group called Where's the Math? to voice their anger over a decade of reform math.

Wilson High School math teacher Diana Fisher wonders why district leaders brought the curriculum to Portland without more compelling evidence.

'We did not get very much information from teachers who had used it, in advance of having to vote on it,' she said. 'That was a concern.'

Fisher said she's frustrated by many aspects of the algebra II curricula, including what she sees as a shortage of teacher support materials, the book's 'excessive' emphasis on group work and the lack of examples in the book for students to follow.

After 37 years as a teacher, she said, the new curriculum undermines the experience teachers have amassed after years of reworking lesson plans, talking with colleagues and attending conferences.

'It was difficult to have to throw all of that out and start from ground zero in trying to make this work,' she said.

Yet other teachers find the new math invigorating. The group work has 'really gotten the kids to talk a lot more than they did before,' said Thygeson, the Madison teacher, and a member of the adoption process. 'That's important with tough concepts.'

Lincoln High School math teacher Andrew Vandervelde, who was also part of the adoption process, also said the group work helps kids help themselves.

'It's not that I'm not there, but I just can't get around to 30-some kids, so some kids slipped by (before),' he said. 'I'd love these kids to learn it on their own and depend on each other. This new curriculum supports that kind of approach.'

Yet other teachers strongly believe this curriculum isn't the best way to teach everyone. 'It takes away from a teacher using professional judgment,' said Pardis Navi, a math teacher at Grant High School. 'This book assumes everybody's going to learn the same thing exactly the same way.'

The numbers show progress

Clark and his team of math specialists are aware of the concerns, but say the numbers speak for themselves.

Since 1998, when Portland's elementary and middle schools adopted the new math curriculum, statistics show that the numbers of third-, fifth- and eighth-graders who meet and exceed state benchmarks have seen a steady rise - among all racial groups and at all schools throughout the city.

'We're the best-kept secret in the country, right here,' said Margaret Calvert, the district's secondary education math specialist. Portland's elementary schools have been using a math curriculum called Investigations, and the middle schools adopted the Connected Mathematics Project.

Both new math programs are the targets of some opposition nationally as well as locally. Numerous parents - most of whose children are gifted in math - have pulled their child out of math to home-school them in the subject because they feel the district isn't meeting their needs.

Clark points out that while the so-called 'discovery' math used in the early grades has shown results, 10th-graders (the only high school grade tested in state achievement tests) have shown a recent downward trend. 'The question for us was, We've had six to seven years of tremendous growth for all kids across town,' Clark said. 'We've very significantly closed the achievement gap. … Why aren't we seeing that reflected (in high school)?'

He and his team then set out to comb through national research on the best way to teach math. The process took a year and a half, and involved a group of 30 high school teachers and a handful of middle school teachers. Also at the table were the parent advisory groups for the Talented and Gifted, special education and English Language Learners programs.

Clark concedes the district should have reached out to more parents. 'We had some input, but not as much as we wanted,' he said. The group narrowed the choices to four curricula, which were tested in different Portland schools. Of those, College Preparatory Math emerged as the best choice, Clark said.

Parents lend a hand

This past spring, district leaders appointed a volunteer group of six parents to help the broader public understand the new curriculum. So far the group has worked to clear up misconceptions, answer questions and point out resources, such as the tutorials available online.

The committee has produced two quarterly newsletters so far and hopes to sponsor 'math nights' at high schools across the city to encourage families to tackle problems together.

Marjorie McRae, a Madison High School parent who sits on the committee, says she's confident the district is going in the right direction. 'Some students were getting lower-level math,' she said. 'This raises the bar. … The district does need to have a common standard.'

Marcia Arganbright, the district's director of secondary curriculum and instruction, says that after the hubbub over the math adoption process, the district will go above and beyond the level of public involvement for the next curriculum adoptions for K-12 language arts, K-12 English language development, high school social studies and science for grades 9 and 10.

The materials under consideration are on display through Jan. 31 at Gregory Heights Middle School in Northeast Portland; viewing times are listed on the Web site

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