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Spokane Public Schools looks to adopt new math program

A new math program called EngageNY is starting to engage Spokane Public Schools’ K-8 kids.

It’s free. It’s online. And it could help settle some dust in the district’s ongoing math wars.

Tonight the district’s school board will decide whether the curriculum should be adopted as the interim math instruction for K-8 students while teachers wait for book publishers to come up with texts aligned with Common Core – the new national standards adopted in 45 states.

“I am surprised that it’s free for the quality that I think it is; it’s really comprehensive,” said Tina Carson, a sixth-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School who started testing the curriculum this week. On the other hand, she said, “It’s not necessarily as differentiated as it should be because we have kids who don’t speak English. And gifted students, there’s not a lot of reaching for them.”

The New York State Education Department designed EngageNY using a federal education grant to create a K-12 math curriculum for implementation of new national standards.

“We kept looking for materials internally and wondered what else was out there,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said. “We’re really impressed.”

The new curriculum is a mix of demonstrating understanding of math concepts, showing how to do the actual work and applying the knowledge to a problem.

Spokane Public Schools, like many other districts, has been criticized by some parents who believe the current math curriculum is too conceptual.

“Part of the math wars, in my sense, it’s really all about balance,” said Jeff Bierman, a school board member and Gonzaga University physics professor. “When people think back, they think about the procedural skills, memorization, doing problems over and over again. But it left out conceptual development. So people would say they could do math, but not the story problems.”

To address that issue, school districts emphasized concepts at the expense of the basics, he said.

Math education is a three-legged stool: mathematic procedures, conceptual understanding and contextual understanding.

With each lesson in EngageNY is a guideline for teachers about how much time should be spent teaching each area. For example, about 50 percent is allocated to understanding the math, about 20 percent is devoted to practicing and about 30 percent is devoted to how to use it.

“These are pretty balanced materials,” Bierman said. “It’s a transition from what we have now, which really doesn’t align with anything.”

Carson, the Roosevelt Elementary teacher, said, “The kids really like it. With math, that’s not always the case so to me that’s huge.”

The price is right, too. There are no textbooks, so the only expense is printing costs for now.

Bierman called EngageNY an interim solution to help the district bridge from outdated and “unbalanced” materials to a long-term solution.

The curriculum will be phased in over the next two years if the school board adopts it tonight.

Steven Gering, the district’s chief academic officer, said, “We believe a strong mathematics program includes helping all students develop a solid foundation in math facts and concepts, with plenty of time for skill development.”

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