Memo to Principals and Math Staff Developers

Shelley Harwayne
Community Superintendent (Acting)
Community School District Two
333 Seventh Avenue, 7th floor
New York, NY 10001
212-330-9480 (fax)

January 23, 2001

To: All Principals, Math Staff Developers
From: Shelley Harwayne and Lucy West

The purpose of this memo is to summarize what was discussed at the two mathematics meetings held in the district in December.

The consensus seemed to be that though there is uneven implementation across the district of the adopted curricula, it is better to have curricula than not.

Everyone present agreed that no curricula is a panacea and may need to be supplemented for specific purposes for specific children. It was acknowledged that there is a tension between the need to cover the adopted curriculum and the desire to supplement the curricula. The general feeling is that those teachers who have been teaching the curriculum for 2 or more years are more likely to cover the units and use less additional materials.

Concerns were raised about the sequence of units. Some people stated that the "meatier" units came too late in the year. The sequence of units is adjusted every year by the teacher leaders and staff developers on each grade level and then across the grades. This is done in May and June at our teacher leader meetings. The teacher leaders reflect on the year, consider what appeared on the test, and consider what was covered by the previous grade level in making the recommended sequence. In response to this concern, we had the teacher leaders review the present sequence in January and make midyear adjustments which will be shared at the schools by staff developers and teacher leaders.

Though we encourage everyone to follow the suggested sequence, we are aware that some teachers have legitimate reasons for changing the order of a particular unit or two and have supported them when they have done so. For example, the Chinatown middle schools have put the data unit before the multiplication unit in sixth grade because they believed that the data unit was more conducive for the development of community and language.

Concern regarding supplementing the curricula materials were raised. Some people felt that supplementation was necessary for students who needed more practice in basic skills. However, when asked specifically what evidence was being used to make this determination, we began to wonder how much authentic assessment was driving the supplementation. It has been the experience of some of the staff developers that the teachers who are doing the most supplementation are the teachers who have received the least amount of professional development support and/or are teachers who are uncomfortable with the mathematics content being taught and are least familiar with the materials.

First and foremost any supplementation needs to be based on assessment of student understanding. What specifically does a student or group of students misunderstand that is not covered in the curriculum? How do you know that they don't understand? Are you sure it is not in the curricula? Once a specific concept or skill is identified as missing from the curricula or requiring more practice than the curricula provides, then targeted supplementation can be offered.

Carefully selected materials should be used which specifically target the identified problem and are in line with the Principles of Learning. (See District Policy Regarding Mathematics Curriculum 2001). Examples of appropriate sources for additional materials include, NCTM publications, Math In the City activities, Marilyn Burns publications and activities shared at our various workshops and institutes. Workbook pages from old textbooks, ditto sheets with 25 computation problems, pages out of the Amsco books, etc. are generally not appropriate.

When the teachers in this district and/or the math office staff discover that there is a concept or a skill that is not covered in our curricula and appears on a standardized test, the math office provides materials or a workshop to address that need. (This year the 8th grade workshop on trigonometry was designed based on the fact that there is one question on the 8th grade test that is not covered in CMP.)

It was acknowledged that student performance in the district has improved over the past three years in areas such as problem solving and conceptual understanding and remained steady in basic skills. The fourth grade test scores are holding steady and the 8th grade test scores are still within the margin of error of holding steady.

The three major concerns that have been raised in this district by parents and some teachers are: homework, computation and assessment.

Homework: on the elementary level a homework packet for each grade, 2-5, went out to all schools in September. At the meeting in December, we were told that these packets were useful and asked to do another set. The math office with the help of the teacher leaders will do our best to meet this request.

In the meantime, the homework that has been complained about by parents often does not come from the adopted materials. I have asked parents to show me examples of what they are complaining about and it is interesting to note that the examples that were shown to me as the ones that are causing problems are often the "supplementary" materials teachers are using.

We have recommended on several occasions that the parent letters that appear in each unit be sent home to parents at the beginning of each unit. We remind you that these letters are available in both Spanish and Chinese and can be found in the teacher kits.

Computation: We continue to believe that students need to construct meaning while they are learning to compute and that having several procedures is better than having one. There is overwhelming research that shows that teaching a specific procedure in the early grades is counterproductive and can actually inhibit the development of a solid foundation in place value. Many of our struggling learners exhibit a very fragile understanding in place value even in middle school. This is the result of the kind of teaching we are trying to improve upon, it is not the result of the new curricula. The children who are in schools in which the adopted curricula are being used consistently in all grade levels are generally powerful and flexible computers by third grade.

It was also noted that place value and long division have always been difficult concepts for many students. It is quite possible that the curricula materials are exposing these weaknesses not creating them.

It is clear that we all want to provide the best mathematics education available to all of our students and we are all doing the best we can. Your comments and feedback are not only appreciated, but used to guide the work of the mathematics initiative.

Thanks for all you support.

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