School Math Stirs Passions at Local Forum

By Ronald Drenger

The Tribeca Trib
May, 2000

The PS/IS 89 auditorium was standing room only on April 17 for a two-and-a-half-hour "math night" that was punctuated with cheers, jeers and impassioned speeches. While mathematical formulas, number lines, and graphs may not seem like subjects that would pack a house on a rainy Monday night, for many parents and educators nowadays, these are hot topics.

The event, sponsored by Community School District 2, grew out of questions and concerns raised by a group of parents about the district-mandated methods of teaching math. Reflecting a debate taking place nationwide, parents and math scholars have criticized those methods for not teaching basic computational skills.

It's a debate that grew into front-page news last month with a New York Times article on parents in District 2 and across the country who say "new math" fails their children.

For years, math nights have been annual events in many of the district's schools, including Tribeca's PS 234. Teachers, principals and district math professionals use the occasions to explain their methods, which encourage children to work in groups and discover their own problem-solving strategies, rather than learn and practice formulas given them by teachers and textbooks. The method emphasizes the understanding of mathematical concepts over basic skills execution and memorization.

But the April 17 event was the first district-wide meeting devoted solely to math, and the first that gave parents an extended forum to speak their minds.

For the first hour-and-a half, the district's mat director, Lucy West, and other District 2 educators had the floor. They used statistics, anecdotal evidence, dozens of overhead projections and a video to explain their approach.

When a panel of professionals who support the math program took the stage to answer parents' questions, they heard much angry criticism as well as some heartfelt support.

"The new math is designed to help kids feel successful, but all the exploration and group activities, writing exercises, and use of calculators is not helping anyone," said Maureen Weinberg, whose two daughters, a fourth grader and a sixth grader, go to schools in the district.

Parents said they were concerned that their children were not being prepared for work in later grades.

"What are you going to do when my kid is falling behind?" Mindy Schiffman asked rhetorically. "We get no help unless we pay for a tutor."

But other parents said the new curriculum had helped their children learn different ways to solve problems and better understand math.

"I can't speak highly enough about it," said Brenda Schonhaut, a mother of a PS 89 third grader and a 14-year-old in middle school "My kids sit around the table and talk math like they like it. And they get it.

Nick Tanis, a PS 116 father, agreed. "My daughter understands the correlation between abstract numbers and the real world," he told the audience. "She's getting stuff I didn't get."

Elizabeth Carson, an outspoken critic of the district's math program who helped initiate the math night, said the forum fell far short of what she and other parents on an organizing committee envisioned. District officials had turned down their request for a "balanced" panel to include critics as well as district proponents. And she said the presenters did not adequately address concerns that had been raised by parents in response to a recent survey about the district's math curriculum.

But plans are now being made for a second forum - possibly this month or next - that would include a panel of experts on both sides of the issue. At the district's April 18 school board meeting, several board members said they will work with Carson to organize it.

Carson calls the dialogue long overdue. "The next step is that we as parents need to know how the district will develop the curriculum to reflect what is working and what needs to be revised," she said. "Parents' concerns need to be validated."

The district-wide math programs include TERC (Technical Education Research Center) at the elementary level and CMP (Connected Mathematics Project) in middle school. In the mid-1990'2, PS 234 was a leading demonstration site in the nation for the use of TERC and a forerunner method.

Recently, a parent math committee at the school expressed concerns about their children's math education in a letter to the principal, Anna Switzer.

Like many math programs around the country, TERC grew out of guidelines issued in 1987 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Last month, the group announced changes to those standards, a step that some observers have characterized as a major shift back to more traditional methods.

In an interview, however, West said that the revisions represented more of a fine tuning and that she did not see big changes coming to math education in District 2. The district, West explained, will try to implement the curriculum more evenly in all schools and will "continue to refine our instruction so that teachers are using a variety of strategies. "The standards, she added, are a balance among "computational skills, conceptual understanding and application through problem solving." That balance, she said, "constantly needs to be tweaked and addressed."

Reproduced with permission from the Tribeca Trib.

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