February 16, 2009 in City

Schools looking to overhaul math curricula

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

The Spokesman-Review Ponderosa Elementary School first-grade teacher Ellen Briggs works with her students Wednesday using the MathConnects program.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

First-graders in Ellen Briggs’ classroom at Ponderosa Elementary School begin their daily math lesson with the addition boogie.

Wiggling their bodies, they chant as a song blares from a classroom computer.

“One plus zero equals one! One plus one equals two!”

When the jingle ends, the students scurry to their desks to write in their math journals with help from “Matthew Cando,” the robot hand puppet.

The hands-on strategy is just what Briggs loves about a new math curriculum she’s taking for a test drive, called MathConnects.

Briggs is one of several Central Valley School District teachers piloting new math materials in the classroom this year. Like many school districts across the state, CV is revising the district math curriculum in response to new state standards.

The new K-12 math standards were adopted last year after a state report concluded that the previous standards lacked key concepts, especially when it came to the basics. But mostly officials were alarmed by the continued poor performance by students on state math assessments – primarily the WASL.

The standards were overhauled for all grade levels, making them easier for teachers to understand and clarifying what students should know as they move through the grades. The standards don’t tell teachers how to teach, just what children should know.

While the state hasn’t set a deadline for districts to replace or update curricula, students’ knowledge of the new concepts will be tested beginning next year for grades kindergarten through eight. Grades nine through 12 will be tested starting in 2011, state officials said.

“The only way that we have any control over what districts do is really through an assessment process,” said Greta Bornemann, director of mathematics for the state.

With the WASL on the way out, what that assessment will look like is unknown. What is clear is that a change is needed.

Under the new standards, many math concepts will be shifted down a grade level. For example, this year a first-grader is expected to identify and name circles, triangles, squares, cubes and spheres. Next year those skills will be taught in kindergarten.

“We are obviously taking a very strong look at our current curriculum,” said Bridget Lewis, executive director of instructional programs for Spokane Public Schools. The district will decide in coming months whether to replace current programs, or use supplemental materials to update what is already in place.

“It may be some combination, but we haven’t had the time yet to go deep enough into that analysis,” Lewis said.

Other districts, like Central Valley, are forging ahead. The district launched a process in October to replace the math curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade next year.

A 47-member committee of parents, teachers and administrators spent months researching and examining state-reviewed curricula that were closely matched to the new standards. The district selected two programs at the middle and elementary level out of the state’s top five. Teachers in 25 elementary and 10 middle school classrooms are piloting new programs. The test drives will last about a month.

Typically, a curriculum adoption takes two years.

“Going into this process we knew that we had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time,” said Terrie VanderWegen, CV executive director of teaching and learning.

For parents, changes will be noticeable as children bring work home.

In the past, some parents have complained that math curriculum had become “fuzzy” and asked for more of what they considered traditional math. Teaching “spiraled,” meaning students would be taught a concept for a short period before moving on, and would return to the concept later in the year. The new standards focus more on mastery and memorization.

“The new performance expectations go deeper with the concepts and tend to be more traditional; parents will see more practice in the books and they will see more time spent on the concepts before the students move on,” VanderWegen said.

Another key piece of any new curriculum will be how technology is used.

The MathConnects curriculum, published by Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, provides online tutoring and help for students and parents, as well as technology support for teachers.

Scott Krentel, a fifth-grade teacher piloting MathConnects at Opportunity Elementary School, said parents have the option of going online when struggling to help their child.

“If we are learning about factors, it will say here’s what a factor is, and then gives three examples, and does it all with pictures and words and vocabulary,” Krentel said.

The curriculum also has computer-based options to help teachers differentiate learning for students who are above level or below level, so every need is met. The software programs also help teachers create personalized tests easily, “without having to dig through a pile of textbooks,” Krentel said.

“I’m very thankful I teach in this age rather than the blackboard age.”

Sara Leaming can be reached at (509) 459-5533 or by e-mail at sarale@spokesman.com.

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