In Cumberland, new math lessons replace 'Investigations'
In Cumberland, new math lessons replace 'Investigations'
CUMBERLAND - Jason Augustyn's son, a 4th-grader at Ashton Elementary, is tackling a brand-new math curriculum this year - the third one in his brief student career.
Augustyn told the School Committee last week that he worries his son's teacher received too little information about implementing the new curriculum and says homework papers are confusing.
His daughter, meanwhile, a 1st-grader, has decided she's "not good at math." And that's breaking his heart.
"I think something is deeply wrong," he suggested to the school board.
Augustyn was one of several parents, including state Rep. Karen MacBeth, who raised concerns about Engage NY, the math book series that replaces the controversial Math Investigations of many years, and the short-lived foray into Dana Institute curriculum.
Their comments were raised during the public comment section of the meeting when School Committee members are restrained by their attorney not to respond, not even with a nod of head, to the often emotional pleas from parents.
But Supt. Philip Thornton told The Breeze later the handful of complaints should be balanced. Unhappy parents represent a minority of the parents of more than 2,000 elementary school students.
He and Assistant Supt. Robert Mitchell are not only standing firm on the new curriculum, they're saying there was no choice but to step up the rigor of elementary school math lessons.
"With any initiative there's always positive and negative," he said. "And there have been some negative responses. But there have been ecstatic responses, too."
Thornton says tougher "Common Core State Standards," or CCSS, are sweeping the nation's schools and scores on the coming PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing beginning in 2015 will assess just how well school districts are responding.
And while at least one parent last week complained about "teaching to the test," Thornton counters, "It's not bad to teach to teach to the test if the test represents accepted international standards."
Mathematics has been a touchy subject in Cumberland's school district for years. Parents have been uncomfortable with the elementary school Math Investigations series while many townspeople were shocked to learn several years ago that only 30 percent of Cumberland High School juniors were considered proficient in math.
The new math program is rolling out against the backdrop of a series of changes for the district that include new administrators, redistricting, and a grading program that sees students who were accustomed to achieving 95 percent on a quiz receiving instead a simple 2 that indicates proficiency. School Committee members hear regular complaints about that system, which is still under review for the high school.
Assistant Superintendent Mitchell is the district's point-person on curricula. He's says EngageNY is "highly regarded" and will "ramp up" students to where they need to be.
It comes without textbooks. Instead, teachers are accessing lesson plans online and printing out practice and homework sheets for students.
Says Mitchell, "The thing people need to understand, and I know there's some concern about this, but new standards are raising the bar."
At last Thursday's meeting, the math coordinator for elementary and middle schools, Monique Johnson, offered school board members a mini-math lesson on multi-digit addition through the eyes of a 4th-grader.
Before it was over, she had demonstrated three different ways for adding two five-digit numbers, including the labor-intensive method of assigning dots to represent the columns of ones, tens, hundred and thousands, then adding them together.
Augustyn sat through the demonstration then told committee members he was "flabbergasted" by the time that method consumed and questioned "where in the real world" it would be acceptable.
Once again, school board members offered no reply, but a memo to parents from Mitchell and Thornton says CCSS "are rigorous. Students will be learning in different ways and teachers will be teaching in different ways. This transition will be challenging for students and staff," it said.
And the EngageNY website cites changes in teaching methods that includes "Your child will understand why the math works and be asked to talk about and prove their understanding."
Cumberland educators this year had hoped to launch both the reading and math segments of EngageNY this fall, but on Sept. 12 sent home a memo to parents that said the reading part would be piloted by a few classes but most would continue with the generally popular Reading Street curriculum purchased several years ago.
Mitchell told The Breeze later, "Whenever we make a change, it's difficult. No matter how much professional development you do, and I don't want to minimize professional development, whenever you're making a change of this magnitude, it's going to be hard."
He says New York state educators used their federal Race to the Top funds to develop Engage NY math curriculum to align teaching to the Common Core State Standards, an educational standard adopted by 46 states that represent an international benchmark standard that will make the United States competitive with the rest of the world.
The old curriculum, Math Investigations, "was not aligned to the Common Core," he said. "There were too many gaps we would have had to fill and it would have taken too much time to fill the holes in time for the PARCC in 2015."
"The easy thing to do is do nothing," he continued.
"We knew it would be challenging but we believe it's in the best interest of our kids."
Mitchell, who came to Cumberland in 2012 from Chariho Regional High School, added, "I've been through it a million times. People need to work together. It's like anything else, sometimes you've got to jump in."
The decision to change was made not only by the central office, but with the concurrence of teachers, he said, "and because we believe it is the right thing to do."
Talking to The Breeze, Mitchell cited not only the U.S. failing on the international stage, but the "high percentage of graduates who need remedial coursework - even at CCRI a high percent need remedial reading and math work."
Thornton, meanwhile, says his goal is to reverse the decline in American's math and literacy skills.
He points to a study released on Oct. 8 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that found that among adults in advanced economies, the United States ranks near bottom in skills with numbers and technology, and only near the middle for literacy. Japan and Norway finished first and second in all three areas, with the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway near the top.
Among other findings, the study found that the younger Americans were, the worse they scored.
For some, the curriculum has been such a challenge that Thornton and Mitchell were prompted on Oct. 2 to issue a memo to parents that included some background information and guidelines on homework.
Thornton said that complaints he was hearing from parents about lengthy homework sessions led him to poll teachers about how many nights the system's young students should be assigned homework.
The overwhelming answer surprised him, he told The Breeze: five nights a week, including Fridays. The next day's lesson depends on the completed work, they told Thornton.
The caveat, though, is that children should not be spending more than 20 minutes a night on math problems. If the struggle continues beyond that limit, parents should send a detailed note to teachers explaining the difficulty.
About the parent complaint that teachers were lacking in training, Mitchell said most teachers received the new curriculum over the summer and the entire professional development day of Aug. 26 was devoted to it.
The series Engage NY also includes reading curriculum that Cumberland will likely change to next year. Several years ago, after much research, Cumberland educators embraced the Reading Street series, but Thornton says now there are gaps in the curriculum. For example, the PARCC standards strongly emphasize non-fiction reading and writing over fiction.
A couple of elementary school classes are piloting the new reading series, while most parents received a memo that it will be put off for a year.