Parents, educators weigh in on math curriculum

More than 530 parents, teachers and community members gathered at Roosevelt High School in mid-October to talk about something parents fear more than the smoking, skipping school and sex talks combined: math.

Solving problems

The talk was led by Ruth Parker, a former elementary-school teacher and CEO of Mathematics Education Collaborative, who argued that the traditional methods of teaching math still employed in schools are leaving Seattle students "numerically illiterate" and "unprepared for the demands of reasoning necessary in the work force today."

As an example, audience members were asked to perform a series of seemingly simple math problems, but without the aid of pen and paper. The problem "48 times 26" alone resulted in six different answers and immeasurable audience frustrations.

This difficulty, Parker said, results from mathematics programs that force students to conform to a fixed method of solving math problems.

"Mathematical competence does not come from memorizing formulas you don't understand," Parker said. Instead, she believes that students should explore multiple ways of solving a problem, and then test them to see which strategies work consistently.

Audience members were hum-bled by examples of fifth-graders' varying and creative responses to the "48 times 26" equation, all of which were more efficient and constant than traditional methods.

This efficiency comes from an understanding of reasoning and the relationship between numbers, concepts that Parker said educators are "un-teaching" by insisting that students use only the textbook methods.

"Nobody ever taught us to play with numbers," she said. "How much longer are we going to do this before we realize that something is not right?"

This lack of student math competency is more relevant than many would think. Parker argues that what employers are really searching for - and rarely finding - are problem-solvers who understand and know how to reason with large numbers.

Real-world expenditures, statistics and inventories are increasingly more complex than scenarios given in textbooks, and as a result, traditional problem-solving methods are no longer adequate as solutions.

Parker believes that we must equip students early in life with the skills to become successful adults. "If our math programs are designed only to help children compete with a calculator," she said, "that pretty much guarantees a position at minimum wage."

Effecting change

Parker called upon community members to demand a change in the way Seattle schools teach mathematics, a change that would entail new textbooks, new objectives and, above all, a renewed community support and activism in mathematics education.

Robin Pasquarella, president of the Seattle-based nonprofit Alliance for Education, which helped sponsor the event, agrees that these types of changes are crucial to students' academic success.

"We believe Seattle needs to keep on its current path toward a balanced approach to math education," she said. "[The] event was a great step in raising awareness about math education among families, teachers and community members."

Many parents were unsatisfied with merely discussing the shortcomings of their children's math classes and wanted to know what they could do personally to ensure their chil-dren's success.

Parker asserted that parents can start with simple steps like discussing homework problems with their kids, encouraging creative thinking about math and supporting improvements in the Seattle [Public] Schools' mathematics program.

Rosetta Brown, a homemaker who attended the lecture with her two middle-school children, agrees that parent participation is a must in today's school system.

"It forces parents to take an active role in their children's education," she said. "Our children are not being taught what they need to succeed in today's society."

Raj Manhas, superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, was present at the event and spoke of his enthusiasm and support for augmenting mathematics program; however, no specific plan of action has been proposed by the district at this time.

Both Parker and Pasquarella believe that revolution is not only in the hands of district administrators, but that parents and teachers can work together to make significant improvements in students' skills and attitudes toward math.

"No matter what approach is used in the classroom," Pasquarella said, "if teachers aren't well-prepared, if students who are struggling aren't well-supported and if our community doesn't understand and feel connected to what's happening in our schools, then we will not be successful."

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