Math Wars Strike at Core
'Investigations' lead to statewide review

By Nicole Stricker
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune

Article Last Updated:11/19/2006 11:20:53 AM MST

HIGHLAND - A roomful of Freedom Elementary third-graders tackled a math worksheet, and not a single student got hopelessly stuck. The fastest among them started a new problem, and several who didn't finish before recess elected to stay seated and keep at it.
    The group had never before tried to factor 36 and 48, yet not one student failed to find the solution. And those arriving at wrong answers knew why right away.
    Regardless, their classroom sits in the eye of a storm surrounding elementary math education. Their district's "Investigations" curriculum led angry parents to pull their children from school. University math professors organized protests, and state legislators fielded calls from frustrated patrons.
    The issue: What's the best way to teach kids math.
    Utah's "math wars" have since reached a truce, but not without casualties. The Investigations curriculum at Freedom and other Alpine School District schools, which critics call "fuzzy math," has been pushed to the sidelines. And the entire state's math standards were caught in the crossfire. Despite the advice of two review committees, state education leaders offered to overhaul the "math core," which dictates what kids should learn in each grade.

    "There's little question Investigations started this," said Patti Harrington, Utah state schools superintendent.
    All children learn differently and that's especially true with math. Some kids grasp verbal lessons quickly while others need visuals to make a concept click. So teachers must use many methods.
    But approaches that stress underlying concepts over drills have sparked a national debate. It hit Utah when Alpine made the Investigations curriculum its primary teaching tool.
    In Investigations classrooms such as Sarah McÂEwen's, pencils and wall boards often get less use than interlocking blocks. Students arrange them into groups to visualize the concepts behind multiplication and division.
    Several students used the blocks to help them divide numbers into factors while others counted by twos, threes or fours on a grid. The class as a whole then reviewed the factor pairs.
    "The good thing about this is every child can be successful," said April Leder, Alpine School District's math specialist.
    "Inquiry-based" curricula such as Investigations urge students to explore math problems on their own using whatever method makes the most sense. Then they discuss their varied approaches as a class.
    But the lessons infuriate many who think kids should be mastering their times tables instead of playing around with blocks. They worry kids never learn standard math.
    "[Investigations] is down on memorizing basic arithmetic facts," said David Wright, a mathematics professor at Brigham Young University who opposes the curriculum. "By the time [kids] get to Algebra I, if they don't know these facts cold, they are really in trouble."
    The issues are similar to those that plagued reading when people debated the merits of learning phonics versus "whole language."
    "Is reading just sounding out words?" asked Alpine's Leder. "No, it's comprehension and it's the same thing with math."
    Most teachers strive for a balance of both approaches. Even those who don't use Investigations have kids find their own way to solutions before teaching standard long division.
    Alpine district already had been discussing supplementing Investigations with another curriculum, but the State Office of Education no longer gives districts an option. Investigations will soon be taken off the list of approved "primary" texts. By fall, Alpine will join a handful of Utah districts that combine the method with other curricula.
    But even districts that didn't use Investigations could have big changes in store next fall. The Investigations controversy spread to include criticism of Utah's math core. Some said the standards were too soft and legislators asked the Utah State Board of Education for a review.
    Two separate groups - WestEd, a nonprofit education research group, and a panel of Utah math educators and professors - took on the task. Both found few problems with Utah's standards and suggested only cosmetic changes such as word choices or streamlining.
    "[They're] asking for us to change language like 'mathematical proficiency' and reword it to say 'quick recall.' '' said Brett Moulding, curriculum director for the Utah State Office of Education.
    Yet when review team representatives reported their findings to the Legislature, their testimony was largely dismissed.
    "The WestEd report wasn't meaningful," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.
    He instead chose to heed the advice of three math professors who believe Utah's standards require a complete overhaul. The state school board appeased lawmakers by offering a full revision of the core.
    Although all subject cores are revised about once every 10 years, Utah's math standards weren't due for an update until roughly 2012.
    But Harrington said new research may justify an early revision.
    The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has released a new set of "curriculum focal points" that likely would have been incorporated into Utah's core even without the larger revision, she said. A math panel convened by President Bush to study math education also will release results soon.
    "It's with a desire to be internally sound that we go into this," Harrington said.