kitchen table math, the sequel: Help Desk question: Can parents affect a curriculum change at a school?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Help Desk question: Can parents affect a curriculum change at a school?

I'm looking for success stories of parents affecting the math program taught in an elementary school.
I'd like to provide some encouragement to a commenter on my blog, who asked:
How does one get their school district to consider changing over to Singapore Math?
Most of the schools I have worked with have had teacher-led math curriculum initiatives. Does anyone have examples of parent-initiated changes to share?

13 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I got my son’s private elementary school to switch to Singapore math for a few years. After he left, another parent (less math savvy) convinced them to switch to a different curriculum.

So I got them to switch, but not to understand why the Singapore curriculum was superior. If you want a lasting change, your best bet is to get some teachers in the school convinced that the curriculum is substantially better. To do that, you have to have them understand why Singapore Primary Math is structured the way it is, and why that approach works better than the standard US curricula. This may be an uphill battle, as most US elementary teachers are math-phobic and think that group exercises and writing paragraphs about math is more fun than actually doing math.

Allison said...

I can't comment on the parent-success part for going to Singapore Math, but want to elaborate on GSW/OP's spot-on comments.

You can't just change the textbook. You have to change the culture.

Culture drives everything else. Add Primary Mathematics on top of a "math is for only the nerds" culture and it still won't work. Add Primary Mathematics on top of a culture that doesn't value math content knowledge or doesn't value professional development in content knowledge for its teachers and you'll still get nowhere.

As SteveH points out, it's easy to subvert a new textbook. If the teachers don't understand the material, they aren't going to do all of the activities that SM suggests. They'll just move through the workbook and call it a day. That isn't enough to build the students to mastery.

So instead, the culture needs to be changing while you are then trying to drive this changes in textbooks and professional development. Does the school even know that their kids are ill served in math? Do the teachers feel that? Do they understand why every 4th grade teacher needs to cover the same material? Do they know how what they are teaching builds on the grade before and supports the grade after? do they know what their kids need to know to succeed at algebra?

This isn't meant to be a wet blanket or terribly discouraging. It's meant to start groking where the district or school is at, and why they've been making the choices they are making. Until you see what the value, you won't know why they haven't chosen SM yet. If you do see what they value, then you can at least tailor your pitch to those issues. And from there, try to slowly steer the culture.

SteveH said...

It was right before my time, but parents in our town helped get rid of CMP in 7th and 8th grades. It helped that the math teacher who brought in CMP in the first place left. Some kids were trying to go from CMP in 8th grade to geometry as a freshman. They weren't prepared. They tried adding some extra algebra along with CMP, but that didn't work. The question they couldn't get around was why our middle school didn't offer the exact same algebra course in 8th grade that was used to lead into the geometry course in high school. Being a small school, it was then easier to switch all kids to some form of the Glencoe Pre-Algebra and Algebra textbooks for 7th and 8th grades rather than keep CMP along with the new textbooks. This curriculum continuity also forced the school to improve the Spanish classes to make sure kids were ready for Spanish II as freshmen.

But it all stops at the 6th/7th grade boundary. I don't see how Everyday Math can be driven out. You can open up an Everyday Math book and see real math. It doesn't matter that it's all broken up into disjoint daily topics that don't ensure any sort of mastery. It fits their idea of full inclusion. Just keep going over the topics and kids will learn when they are ready.

I wouldn't know how to get our schools to change to Singapore Math. At best, I could get them to not "trust the spiral" so much. Teachers know whether kids are smart enough to master the times table in third grade. Isn't that part of what a teacher is supposed to do with differentiated instruction? I want schools to not cop out. I want fifth grade teachers to make a big stink if they see capable kids who don't know the times table yet. I don't want them to send home notes telling parents to work on math facts while they just "trust the spiral".

This is the culture that Allison talks about. Let them keep Everyday Math for now, but push them to define what "balance" really means. Ask them why kids get to 5th grade without knowing the times table. I say that, but I don't know how I would do that; to question their competence.

In fifth grade, we had a teacher/parent meeting about Everyday Math and everyone talked about balance. Nobody defined what it meant or set specific grade-level expectations. What is a parent supposed to do, start defining proficiency tests and telling the school that kids can't go on to the next grade without passing the tests? Either they are serious about balance or they are not. The tests may not force the school to teach better, but flunking kids will get the attention of their parents. They will look at the simple math questions and start asking questions or their own. With "trust the spiral", the school keeps ignoring the problem until it's too late. Then they point to the kids who are doing well. What a horrible trick to play on the rest of the kids. By 7th grade, it's all over.

Catherine Johnson said...

To do that, you have to have them understand why Singapore Primary Math is structured the way it is, and why that approach works better than the standard US curricula.

Have you written about this on your blog?

If you haven't, I would so appreciate an explanation of this.

I perceive Primary Math as superior because of its structure, but that's because I listen to people who know math and I understand the core importance of structure to good writing --- not because I can explain what the structure of Primary Mathematics is or why it works.

If someone could spell this out for parents who are not math specialists, it would be a terrific service to the cause.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm pretty sure Karen H helped rid her elementary school of one of these programs.

Catherine Johnson said...

We've been unsuccessful here in spite of the fact that we now have 2 of 5 board members who support a switch to Singapore Math (or to some other serious curriculum).

At this point, school politics are so polarized between a status quo 'party' and a reform 'party' that one of the two candidates running for board has apparently said that Trailblazers is now working.

We desperately need school choice.

Having to spend years of your life fighting not only clueless administrators but other parents for a decent math curriculum is a massive waste of time, and your own children don't benefit because the years drag on.

I have zero interest in opposing other parents, and I have less than zero interest in having other parents oppose me.

Parents who want a serious math curriculum for their children should not have to spend many thousands of dollars to fund Math Trailblazers.

Catherine Johnson said...

most US elementary teachers are math-phobic and think that group exercises and writing paragraphs about math is more fun than actually doing math

Speaking as a professional writer, I can't imagine anything **less** fun than writing paragraphs about math.

CassyT said...

Catherine asked about the structure of Primary Mathematics.

So here's a comment from a first grade teacher I spoke to yesterday. It's not word for word, but close enough:

I was trying to figure out why the 1B book was having my students cut paper in half and fourths for fractions. It was only one lesson! That night, while prepping for the next lesson, I saw the connection between the lesson on halves then the next lesson that tells time to half past the hour. That makes total sense!

Here's one of my favorite sequences in the materials ramping up to mastery of multiplication facts:
1B
Adding equal groups
Multiplication within 40 (with number stories)
Sharing and Grouping

2A - (using x2, x3 from grade 1)
Multiplication as repeated addition
Multiplication equations
Equal Groups
Arrays
Division as sharing equally
Division as grouping

2B
Multiplying/dividing by 4
Multiplying/dividing by 5
Multiplying/dividing by 10

3A
Multiplication/division review using x2, x3, x4, x5, x10
Multiply/divide by 1, 0
Bar model for multiplication/division using known facts.
Multiply by 10s, 100s
Multiply a 2-digit number by 2, 3, 4, 5
Then a 3-digit number by above
Word problems with multiplication using known facts.
Understand division with a remainder
Divide a 2 digit number by 2, 3, 4, 5
Divide a 2 digit number by 2, 3, 4, 5 (with remainder)
Then a 3-digit number
Word problems with division using known facts.

Then the sequence starts for 6,7, 8 , and 9:
Learn facts for multiplying/dividing by 6
multiply up to 4-digit numbers by 6
Divide numbers within 100 by 6
Word problems involving multiplying and dividing by 6
...Then the above sequence for 7
...Then 8
...Then 9

By the end of 3A, students understand multiplication and division and their facts have been well-practiced.

This also shows why it can be a challenge for students entering the curriculum at the upper elementary levels. Filling the "gaps" or building that foundation under a 5th grader who has had, say, Trailblazers or Investigations, takes time.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was trying to figure out why the 1B book was having my students cut paper in half and fourths for fractions. It was only one lesson! That night, while prepping for the next lesson, I saw the connection between the lesson on halves then the next lesson that tells time to half past the hour.

That's interesting ----

Catherine Johnson said...

They tried adding some extra algebra along with CMP, but that didn't work.

That's my district's approach.

If Trailblazers isn't working, 'supplement' Trailblazers.

Sort of like, if you have a flat tire, add a 5th wheel to the car.

That's not a precise analogy, but at least it's more vivid than anything I've come up with before.

Not easy to talk about structure.

Catherine Johnson said...

My district has been 'supplementing' Trailblazers and ' developing' Trailblazers and hiring consultants to consult on Trailblazers and paying summer stipends to work on Trailblazers for years now.

Catherine Johnson said...

structure vs discovery:

There's a strong bias in ed writings to the effect that all discovery yields understanding and 'ownership' of the subject matter discovered.

But discovery can be just a jumbled and disconnected from everything else as simple memorization.

Jean said...

My district got Everyday Math about 2 years ago. A friend and I went to the curriculum review (there was one other parent there, but the district had made sure not to publicize it) and tried to register our disapproval of it, but the only result was that the supervising teacher argued that research showed that the curriculum didn't matter, it was the teacher that counted (IIRC that study was discredited a few months later). He appeared to be the only math-loving teacher in the district, so that was not comforting. Our district is currently a mess of EM and teachers giving out worksheets they've found. There is no opposition that I know of, no parental organization working towards a coherent math program. Even the GATE program doesn't have any particular math.

So I'd love some explanation of why Singapore (or any other math program!) is superior and some information on educating parents and school boards. I'd get involved with that and I have friends who would too.

I homeschool myself (and use Saxon, which is working very well for us), but I would at least like the option of using the public schools--right now I feel like I have little choice but to homeschool through 8th grade, and though I love it I'd like alternatives, just in case.

People often ask homeschoolers, "Well, why don't you just work for improvement in your school?" THIS is why (and also that homeschoolers often have no objection to PS--we just like homeschooling).