Alpine in grip of 'math wars'

Some parents reject the move from traditional teaching
By Celia Baker
The Salt Lake Tribune

Parents who favor time-honored methods of mathematics instruction don't hesitate to make their opinions known in Utah County's Alpine School District.

    Disgruntlement over a math program that emphasizes conceptual understanding and downplays rote learning caused parents there to pull children out of neighborhood schools in favor of charter, private and home schools; circulate a petition calling for abolishment of "fuzzy" math curricula; and threaten to use a newly enacted law to form their own school district.

    The unhappy moms and dads in Alpine School District found a willing listener in Brigham Young University mathematics professor David Wright. Wright testified about his displeasure with "Alpine math" - and Utah's core math standards - during the 2006 Legislature at the invitation of Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

    Recently, he circulated a petition among Utah's college mathematics faculties, in an effort to have California's math standards implemented in Utah. It is as interesting to see who didn't sign Wright's petition as who did. For, like certain "Alpine math" problems, the question of how mathematics is best taught generates more than one answer.

    A majority of the professors in BYU's mathematics department signed Wright's petition, but not one professor from the school's mathematics education department did. Ten of more than 50 math professors at the University of Utah signed; only one at Utah State University did. Several professors at Weber State University and Utah Valley State College signed, along with one from Snow College.

    "[Wright's] opinion is not unanimous," said Jason Belnap, of BYU's education department. The mathematics and mathematics education professors at BYU divided into separate departments several years ago, partly because of differences in philosophy about how math should be taught.

    Wright said students taught by traditional methods know many formulas but lack problem-solving skills. Such students could err by using the formula for finding perimeters when trying to calculate area, for instance.

    The split at BYU mirrors a national argument known as the "math wars." On one side of the issue are those who say students are best prepared for higher mathematics by memorization of multiplication tables and formulas, and by repeating drills in long division and calculation. The National Council of Mathematics, however, favors an approach that aims to build deeper understanding of math concepts and employs such former "no-nos" as estimation, manipulation of blocks and using calculators to get answers.

    Mathematics standards in most states, including Utah's, are based to some degree on the council's standards for math education. Some in the traditional-math camp claim this is the reason students from the United States are falling behind on tests that make international comparisons of student achievement.

    Oak Norton, ringleader of parents looking for solutions in Alpine School District, maintains Utah's math standards skimp on the basics and lack sufficient rigor to develop mathematicians who can compete in a global economy. He runs a Web site that collects signatures for a petition to toss out Alpine's current curriculum and reinstate traditional teaching methods. More than 5 percent of the district's 54,000 students are represented by the 990 families who signed the petition.

    Alpine district administrators have said they made mistakes in the way math curriculum was implemented, but say that problems have been addressed and that students are scoring well on standardized tests. Norton isn't satisfied. He is still frustrated by homework assignments he deems silly.

    "This Investigations math stuff that comes home is so infuriating," he said. "Cut these numbers out and play a game with them. . . . I get so bored with that. My kids don't learn from it."

    Norton said he has talked to parents and city leaders in the Alpine district and that interest is building in using the provisions of a recently-signed HB77, which allows small cities to band together in forming their own school district. Norton said because the law was just signed, it is too early for him to be more specific about which cities might be involved.

    Wright said his main interest in circulating a petition among professors is in giving Utah stronger, more prescriptive math standards. His petition cites the Fordham Foundation, which gives Utah's math standards a "D" grade and California's an "A." Again, there is little consensus among mathematics professionals about those verdicts.

    James Cangelosi, a mathematics professor at USU, said he can't speak for his department, but he didn't sign Wright's petition because he believes Utah's math standards are superior to California's. He said he was annoyed by the 2006 Legislature's investigation of math curriculum.

    "The Legislature has no background or experience in this," Cangelosi said. "Should the Legislature determine what kind of treatments physicians give?"

    What really matters, he said, is not so much the program being used as how teachers implement it.

    "One of the problems with progressive programs is that they put a greater burden on teachers," he said. "You have to lead students instead of simply telling them. It's an art form many teachers haven't developed yet."

    The 2006 Legislature did not pass the $15 million math initiative the Utah State Office of Education wanted for improving content knowledge of teachers in grades four to six. Stephenson said at the time that he feared the money would go to continue a course he regards as ineffective - progressive teaching that underplays basic computational skill.

   Instead, the Legislature appropriated $7.5 million for math in grades four through six, tying the money to pilot programs focusing on merit pay and teacher development.

    Now, the Utah State Office will develop those programs, and, perhaps, re-examine state standards. Two mathematics professors from each of the state's universities are being invited into the process, along with other stakeholders. The first meeting is Friday.

(c) 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.