Dolan: Math for all: Repairing an incoherent curriculum

By Lucia Dolan/ Guest Commentary
The Newton Tab at Town Online.Com
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

(Original article)

One-third of students in Newton's public high schools have private math tutors or classes, according to a recently published survey conducted by the Newton Public Schools. Why do so many parents feel the need to supplement? I started paying for private math classes in the third grade, after my daughter was taught single digit addition, 4 + 6 + 8, for the third year in a row. This is called spiraling, learning the same math topics year after year. It made as much sense to me as teaching literacy by reading "The Cat in the Hat" three years in a row.

Turns out I'm not the only worried parent. Less than half (39 percent) of elementary parents agree that our school's " math content is demanding enough to meet the learning needs of their children " ("Newton Public Schools Mathematics Curriculum Survey," June 2004, page 23). Most parents do not believe their children are being challenged. For example, 84 percent of our high school teachers, 33 percent of our high school students and 8 percent of their parents believe students are given more challenging work once they have master the material.

Few (38 percent) elementary school teachers like our math curriculum. A strong curriculum is especially important when many of our teachers do not believe they are strong math teachers. Only 35 percent of our elementary, 63 percent of our middle and 47 percent of our high school math teachers consider themselves "master" math teachers.

"METCO parents expressed strong concern that the expectations for their children are too low. They stated they do not understand exactly what their children are learning, and fear low expectations result in 'pseudo diplomas' that give students a false sense of confidence and ability to proceed to college or the work world." (p. 5, Newton Mathematics Curriculum Review Focus Group Report (FG), July 2005)

Challenge programs might seem like tax cuts for the rich, giving to those who already got (smarts, in this case). But the children who benefit most are those whose parents cannot pay for extra tutoring or tutor them at home.

More than half of our low-income students fail the math MCAS in elementary, middle and high school. There is no improvement for time spent in our school system. In 2004, 59 percent of our low-income 10th-graders fail to meet proficiency, compared to 7 percent of our regular students. Proficiency is the minimum all students are expected to meet. My dad was a low-income kid. Neither of his parents made it to the eighth grade. Yet after going through the public school system, he obtained a Ph.D in chemical engineering. He paved the way for his brother to get the family's second college degree, another Ph.D, and bought his parents their first home. He took remedial courses (as did I), but he was able to advance out of them. The ability to advance seems to be missing from our current curriculum. Children who start out behind, are left behind.

"Finally, with so many different curricula within the system, and with so many differing strengths and weaknesses, there seems to be little chance for consistent or coherent experiences for students in mathematics." (page 3, Overview Report: Mathematics Curriculum Survey, July 2004)

Change needs to come from the top of our school administration. Great individual teachers and principals cannot fix the math program on their own. These survey results show we need a major re-thinking of how we teach math. Tinkering at the edges, creating a math resource center for parents (which would encourage further supplementation), or handing out more awards without increasing the level of challenge, will not repair our curriculum. Our children need strong math skills to succeed in the global marketplace. We need to address these difficult issues: "parents were concerned with the disjointed curriculum, gaps and inconsistencies in sequencing, levels that don't meet the needs or abilities of students, overcrowded classrooms, teachers "dumbing down" the curriculum, lack of repetition for reinforcement, and the need to hire outside help." (p. 10, FG, July 2005)

The survey reports were created by Learning Innovations, an educational consulting group, for the Newton Public Schools as part of our curriculum review process. To view the full reports, go to If you are concerned about the quality of our math program, contact our School Committee at

Lucia Dolan is a parent of a middle school student who lives in Newton Centre.

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