This post was prompted by an article in the Bulletin on July 30th (http://www.amherstbulletin.com/story/id/177638/) -- I was out of town and hence didn't get a chance to read it and respond to it appropriately at the time. Given my own interest in math, as well as the intense interest in this education issue at both the local and national level, I have a number of reactions to this piece, and I look forward to what I'm sure will be an active and interesting discussion!
First, I am very glad that we are having a review of the K to 12 math program, which I've asked for since 2006 (prior to my time on the SC). I was delighted when then superintendent Alberto Rodriguez agreed to carry this out as a goal in his first year (with unanimous support from both the Amherst and Regional SCs), and I'm delighted that current interim superintendent Maria Geryk is continuing this effort. I look forward to seeing Dr. Chen's report in a few months.
Second, I really don't think it is appropriate to celebrate Amherst students' "above average" performance on the MCAS as a sign of great success of our math program. I would really hope that our students, who are more affluent than the state average and who live in a town with three colleges/universities, are above average, and frankly, I would hope our scores are above those in Northampton! However, I think it would have been appropriate for this article to have included the very important fact that 3 of the 4 Amherst elementary schools failed to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) in math last year (Marks Meadow was the ONLY school to make AYP), as did all 4 of the Northampton elementary schools. Both Amherst and Northampton use the Investigations curriculum K to 5.
Third, I'm disappointed by the remarks from both Farshid Hajir and George Avrunin. I can't imagine why there there is an accusation that I'm cherry-picking data to show Investigations is bad -- when there isn't any published research showing it is good (if anyone reading this blog has such evidence, please post away). It isn't cherry-picking to state that there is no research showing a curriculum is good if there isn't evidence showing it is good. I do have an ideological bent -- I want our kids to learn math. If there is evidence showing they can do that as effectively through Investigations as with another curriculum, I'd love to see it. Similarly, IMP might be the best high school math curriculum in the world/country. But there are reports from math professors at Berkeley and Stanford suggesting that math curriculum doesn't serve to prepare kids effectively for college math/science. If that is true (and we certainly don't have any evidence that it isn't true), in fairness we should tell kids that BEFORE they choose this track. A 1999 study cited by Mark Jackson simply isn't enough (and see http://www.csun.edu/~vcmth00m/nsf.html for a critique of this study).
So, here are my assorted thoughts on math in Amherst:
I don’t know anything about K to 12 mathematics; I’m a professor of psychology. But I have three kids in the public schools, and I believe all kids in Amherst deserve the very best math instruction they can have. I also believe that math is a central part of our district’s worthy commitment to social justice, because math is the key to opening doors in college not only in math but also in science (and women and minorities are under-represented in both).
I don’t care if we use Singapore math or Thinkmath or Everyday Math or Investigations or reform math or traditional math; I don’t care whether we have AP Statistics or IMP or traditional math in high school; I don’t care if we track or don’t track or when we track. All I care about is that we are using a math curriculum, and program/policies, that pushes all kids to achieve at the highest levels, and keeps doors open for all our kids to go to college and major in whatever they want and gain access to whatever career they want.
That being said, I have serious doubts about whether our current K to 12 math program is doing that. I am concerned that 3 of the 4 elementary schools in Amherst failed to make AYP last year in math. I am concerned that we have an elementary math curriculum that seems to require extensive math coaching of teachers (which is very expensive in money and time). I am concerned that (very good) elementary teachers tell me that Investigations is hard to teach, so they end up supplementing with their own material, which means that kids have very different experiences in different classrooms. I am concerned that there are no well done studies showing that Investigations actually is effective, and that there is now a published study showing it is actually the least effective of the four curricula studied (ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20094052/pdf/20094052.pdf). I am concerned that the last math survey of teachers in our district (2007) revealed that several teachers expressed dissatisfaction with the Investigations curriculum, particularly for teaching ESL students (who represent an increasingly large share of the elementary population in our schools; http://www.arps.org/Curriculum/MathProgramReviewReport08.pdf). I am concerned that the last math survey of parents in our district (2007) revealed that of the parents who chose to write comments, many noted a lack of challenge for their kids (in elementary and middle school; http://www.arps.org/Curriculum/MathProgramReviewReport08.pdf). I am concerned that so many parents of 7th graders teach kids math themselves or hire tutors to teach their kids extensions (which appear to not be consistently taught in the classroom). I am concerned that we have fewer 8th graders taking algebra than many of our comparison districts, perhaps in part because we don't offer "regular" algebra in 8th grade (only honors), which isn't the case in any other district I've found in the country. I am concerned that we allow high school kids to choose whether to take IMP or traditional math yet we really have no idea if these are equally good paths at creating math fluency, especially in light of concerns raised about IMP in preparing kids for college math/science (math.berkeley.edu/~wu/IMP2.pdf). I am concerned that kids who want to take AP Statistics in our district aren’t given that opportunity, which kids in virtually all of our comparison districts have.
Given these concerns, which are not mine alone but are shared by many other parents as well as teachers, I am very glad that our district is finally having an independent and objective evaluation of the effectiveness of our math programs/policies/curricula. Is the single best curriculum to teach elementary kids math Investigations? Is the right way to teach middle school math maintaining heterogeneous classes through 7th grade (with kids choosing whether to do “extensions”), and then in 8th grade having honors algebra and regular math but no regular algebra? Are IMP and traditional math equally effective ways of preparing kids for college-level math? Those are the questions I have, and many parents have, and I think we all simply want honest answers — whether those answers point to maintaining our current approach, or making some changes.
I don't believe that having these questions, or asking these questions, is teacher-bashing, or tearing down our schools, or destroying morale. I actually think that asking these questions, and making sure we get answers as well as some action on the answers, is precisely what I was elected by this community to do as a member of the School Committee. I believe my primary responsibility as an elected official is to the students in our schools -- not the parents, not the teachers, not the administrators. And I believe that our students K to 12 deserve a truly excellent math program which provides challenge, engagement, and support so that all students can achieve at the highest levels and keep doors open for the future.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.