Testimony at School Mathematics Education Hearing of NYC Council Education Committee, November 5, 2003

Testimony to the New York City Council
About the Math Policy
November 5, 2003

Betsy Combier
Marielle Combier-Kapel

Good Morning.

I am the mother of four daughters, and I am here to speak about the math policy which was in place in District 2, while my youngest daughter Marielle was a student there. She graduated last June.

My three older daughters attended private school during their elementary school years, and they all thrived on the same traditional math program that I had when I was a student in the same school many years ago. Math is a challenge, yet I and my children have always loved the logic and problem-solving of traditional math and we do math as an exercise outside of school just because we like to. As a result, none of my children are intimidated by math, and have all done well in their schools. Two of my daughters have been admitted to Stuyvesant High School.

At PS 6, I was appointed to be the school representative to the District 2 School Board in 1998, and went to every meeting. It was there that I first heard about the TERC math approach, which supposedly made math more user-friendly by making process rather outcome the important part of learning math. I thought that this might be a nice sidebar to the traditional approach, especially since TERC seemed so simple, and even boring, but certainly I believed that algorithms and traditional problem-solving are necessary for advanced calculus, should my children decide to become doctors, scientists, engineers, etc. But I could not understand a group of so-called "educators" telling me my child would be punished if she did traditional computations!

There certainly seemed to be many parents who were furious at the School Board and District Superintendent Shelley Harwayne, so I suggested that the District provide parents with a referendum, in order that everybody could vote on which math program - TERC and/or traditional - would be most useful to teach in the District's elementary schools. I was completely taken aback by the response of both Ms. Harwayne and Lucy West, the Math coordinator, saying, in unison, "NO way!!!" and Ms. West added, "Do you think I would want 7 years of my work to go down the drain in a few seconds?"

Soon after that my 9 year old came home with math homework which was, to me, inappropriate for her ability and inescapably incomprehensible: she was to multiply 64 X 19 by ADDING 64 19 times. She and her classmates were told that they should NOT multiply the numbers, that they must try to understand the process. Similarly, 25 X 5 was: 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5. Long division was a technique that could not be uttered in the classroom, and was equally "verboten", punishable by a 0 on your homework or classwork. Marielle cried.

I wrote a friendly note to her 4th grade teacher, asking why any child had to do multiplication by adding numbers, and I received in the backpack a few days later the flyer which is attached below. In this flyer, which the teacher gave out to all the parents in the class, we parents were told not to teach multiplication or division, because our children would get confused.

My daughter was getting more and more upset every night with the homework, which she found tedious and silly - counting eggs in the refrigerator? She wanted to do the math that her sisters did, and yet she was mindful of the teacher's warning that any work had to be in TERC or the homework would not be accepted. She and her friends decided that they all would do the homework the way they wanted to, with long division or multiplication, and then they would erase the work after they got the answer, and write TERC math from the answer to make it look like they had actually done the work in TERC in the first place. Obviously the homework took twice as long as it should have, but at least the kids were sure that their homework would not be rejected. Marielle was also on the MATH Team at PS 6 in 4th grade.

Then in January, 2002, she was given as homework an assignment to write a story, and she decided that she would do research on TERC math and how kids were getting tutored in her class after school. She located online the statistics of the tutoring agencies such as Kaplan, Sylvan, and Score, then asked if I would put a short comment in the piece, which I did. I thought that her writing was very good, so I sent the essay to the NY Sun, and they published a shortened version.

Soon after that my daughter's teacher started telling my daughter that she was very smart in everything but math. Marielle told me over and over again, as she struggled with the TERC homework (although she was excellent at computations), that she just was "no good" at math. When she entered fifth grade she did not make the math team, which "showed" her how "bad" she was at math. Nothing I said made any difference, so I suggested that she take the Johns Hopkins' Center For Talented Youth test because her scores on the English and Math city-wide tests were so high. She agreed, and she scored high enough - the top 3% in the country - to be accepted into the CTY program for math.

In June 2003 there was a curriculum meeting at La Guardia High School, and I decided to attend. The publishers of the new "Everyday Mathematics" were there, and I asked them to explain the program to me. They told me that the program was terrific, but that they could not get anyone at the Department of Education to return their telephone calls about training the teachers. They told me that unless there was sufficient time for the teachers to learn how to teach the program, it was going to fail. In fact, since I was very sympathetic to their frustration, they told me that they were "sure" that there would not be any training over the summer, that the DOE would probably move the first day of school to train the teachers, and that the entire program would be a disaster. They told me that in San Antonio Texas the teachers wanted Diana Lam to leave the State because she tried to get them to attend seminars over the summer without getting paid when she was Superintendent and they ! resented it, so they bought out her contract, and the very same thing was going to happen here in New York City. They were very, very, upset.

My conclusion is that any policy is only as good as the way it is implemented, and the Department of Education in New York City has done nothing to provide our schools with a strategy which will empower teachers and students alike to teach and learn math. As my children's first teacher, I know that it is a skill and an art to teach, to light a spark in a young mind that will start the questioning and thinking process we call learning. There seems to be none of this in the planning and implementation of math policy in New York City.

Why TERC? Letter from a Manhattan Fourth Grader

An editorial by Marielle Combier-Kapel, then in fourth grade in P. S. 6, Manhattan, with an introduction by her mother, Betsy Combier, and a flyer from the school.

[Betsy Combier:] I scanned in the flyer my daughter Marielle received from her 4th Grade teacher one week after I had a talk with her about TERC, and how my daughter was upset at being told NOT to do long division. The teacher, who we do like alot, whispered to me that "her hands were tied". Below is the flyer and Marielle's Editorial which she wrote except for my quote, and she emailed it to the NY Times.

Dear Family,

In mathematics, our class is starting a new unit called Arrays and Shares. This unit focuses on multiplication and division. Students begin the unit by looking at things that are arranged in rows, for example, juice packs, egg cartons, and rows of chairs. Through examining these rectangular arrangements (or arrays), they begin to visualize important aspects of multiplication, for example, that the solution to 7 X 6 is the same as the solution to 6 X 7.

As students go on to work on two-digit multiplication and related division problems, it is critical that they visualize how to pull apart the numbers they are working with. To solve these harder problems, students learn to use related problems they already know how to solve. For example, the problem 7 X 23 can be solved by breaking the problem into more familiar parts: 7 X 10, 7 X 10, and 7 X 3.

While our class is studying multiplication and division you can help in the following ways:

Look for items around your house or at the grocery store that are packaged or arranged in rectangular arrays. Tiles on the floor, egg cartons, window panes, and six-packs of juice cans are examples of rectangular arrays. Talk with your child about the dimensions (rows and columns) and discuss ways to figure out the total number.

Play the Array Games that your child brings home for homework.

Help your child practice skip counting by 3's, 4's, 5's, and so forth.

When your child brings home problems, encourage your child to explain his or her strategies to you. Ask questions, such as "How did you figure that out?" and "Tell me your thinking about this problem", but don't provide answers or methods. Show that you are interested in how your child is thinking and reasoning about these problems.

Please don't teach your child step-by-step procedures for computing multiplication and division. Too often we find that children at this age memorize the multiplication and division procedures but cannot recognize situations in which multiplication and division are useful. We will gradually support students this year in developing several strategies for carrying out multiplication and division problems, but we would prefer they not memorize procedures at this time.

Thank you for your interest in your child's study of mathematics. We are looking forward to an exciting few weeks of work on multiplication and division.


by Marielle Combier-Kapel
4th Grade, PS 6

Parents are making tutors crazy calling them all the time because of TERC math. Kids don't have time to do anything anymore because all they do after school is get tutored in math. Citywide math scores are falling, but Board Of Education officials say that the District 2 math scores on the Standardized tests are high, therefore the TERC math curriculum is a good thing.

Many District 2 parents, having more money than in some other Districts , as shown in statistics given out by the City, are spending it on tutoring, which brings up the scores, giving the impression that TERC is good for us kids.

Five years ago Sylvan Learning Centers had 400 outlets nationwide for math and reading. Today the company has 800 centers serving 150,000 students in math. The Score Learning Program is also growing fast, and Kaplan, the New York based test-preparation company, expects to have 60,000 students by the end of the year from about 40,000 students last year. This is great if your parents have money to spend on this.

TERC math shouldn't be the only kind of math schools teach to their students. Just because some other students in their class aren't that smart, the schools are sending out flyers to go home to the parents saying that they should not teach their child traditional math which includes long division and algorithms. I like long division!

My mom says:"Fuzzy math condemns our kids by not allowing them to establish an understanding of base computations which will empower them as they reach higher levels of problem-solving. The Board of Education policy to implement TERC math and ONLY this curricula is assuring our kids an immediate future of confusion, or worse, boredom, and a long-term disability in math achievement and academic performance in non-math subjects as well. Learning traditional math as a reference is similar to having a Spanish dictionary when you are trying to write something in Spanish."

Parents are now calling other parents to find out if they tutor their children in math or not. One of my sisters' teachers at Stuyvesant told my mom that the Stuyvesant math at the Freshman level may have to be changed to a lower achievement level, as kids from District 2 who are getting in are having trouble with the traditionally rigorous math program.

Middle School teachers are surprised that children in 7th grade are not able to do long division.

What may happen is that I may be unable to compete for college places because the math teaching I have received is not teaching me what I should know. Is that fair?

Marielle Combier-Kapel
4th Grade, PS 6

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