Parents Plead for Forum on District 2 Math

By Ronald Drenger

The Tribeca Trib
December, 2000

Lynn Mercado stood before the District 2 School Board last month and thrust her fifth grade daughter's math paper into the air.

"I'm not a professor or a mathematician. I'm just a mom who's really concerned," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "It took her 15 minutes to figure it out because she can't use traditional methods!"

Mercado was among the District 2 parents and sympathetic math professors who attended the Nov 28 meeting to plead for the board to proceed with a forum on the district's controversial math curriculum. The event, tentatively scheduled for March 1, would have given parents a chance to hear experts on both sides debate the district's methods.

After nearly three hours of contentious discussion, the school board failed to reach a decision, though most members said they want to at least modify the event's format. Board member Mary Somoza voted to move ahead as planned. "If the board votes to snuff out open debate, it will be a disservice to ourselves, teachers and parents," she said.

Earlier in the month., two of three members of the board's math committee voted to recommend canceling the forum. "I wasn't hearing a groundswell of parents who wanted this type of debate," said Doug Robinson, who chaired the committee. Robinson said the district is already modifying the curriculum to address parent concerns.

At the heart of the disagreement are methods of math instruction that District 2 and other school districts around the country have mandated in recent years. Critics charge that the methods emphasize "discovery" learning and conceptual understanding at the expense of computational skills.

The debate comes at a time when the Board of Education is evaluating math education in the city. In October, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy created a commission to critique instruction.

In a recent PS 234 newsletter, Principal Anna Switzer defended the math curriculum, called TERC (Technical Education Research Center), by citing the school's high standardized test scores and her teacher's qualifications.

"WE assess and adapt each year," she wrote. 'The curriculum continues to grow." In an interview, Switzer called the math debate "a tempest in a teapot." With TERC, she said, "the kids are getting a phenomenal math education."

Lucy West, director of mathematics in District 2, who pioneered the "new math" at PS 234, said that parent complaints arise from "confusion and misunderstandings." Many problems, she added, are the fault of uneven implementation, not the curriculum.

But parents critical of the curriculum insist that the district's methods force many families who can afford it to hire tutors.

"We're creating an elitist program, where kids who don't have parents with the money to have private tutors to teach them algorithms don't pass the tests," said Lynn Mercado.

Following the board meeting, School Board President Karen Feuer said the critics are not representative. "There are 40,000 parents in the district, and we have five people who continue to promulgate their views," she said.

But PS 234 mother Christine Larson said many parents are afraid to speak out." For parents and teachers, there's a sense that if you challenge the curriculum there will be negative consequences."

Reproduced with permission from the Tribeca Trib.

Return to the NYC HOLD main page or to the News page or to the Letters and Testimony page.