Palo Alto school board members Tuesday struggled to find common ground between district staff's enthusiastic support of a new K-5 math textbook and substantial parent opposition to the choice.
In a four-hour discussion that went until past midnight in a packed meeting room, teachers praised the text series, "Everyday Mathematics," as offering challenging material, problem-solving skills and high levels of conceptual understanding.
Parents urged the board to consider other options, saying "Everyday Mathematics" would confuse students. They said it offers too many less-than-optimal problem-solving methods and flies in the face of advice from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.
Board members are slated to vote April 28 on the adoption of "Everyday Mathematics" for use in all elementary schools this September.
From their comments Tuesday, it was not clear which way the vote will go, although most seemed reluctant to disrupt the tight timetable that would place new texts in classrooms this fall. Several noted that postponing the decision in order to pilot a new textbook was unlikely to bring about consensus. Some, though not all, of the board members seemed more inclined to try to remedy problems with "Everyday Mathematics."
Some speakers referred to ongoing "math wars" between traditional and reform teaching approaches that have been evident in Palo Alto in earlier math textbook adoptions.
But parent Nimish Vora, among the 319 signers of a petition asking the district to consider other options, disagreed. "This is not a philosophical war. It's just a lack of communication due to lack of time," Vora said.
Administrators presented a list of other high-performing school districts that have adopted Everyday Math, including Piedmont, Palos Verdes and Wellesley, Mass. But parent Lauren Janov, in her own telephone survey of those districts, said she found that Piedmont is new to the series and has not had it long enough to know its value and measure results, and Palos Verdes' board has not yet decided whether to renew Everyday Math. Wellesley no longer has the textbook.
The well-regarded Wilmette/New Trier district in Illinois uses "Everyday Mathematics" in grades K-4, but not for fifth-grade. Scarsdale, N.Y., recently switched from a reform math text (not "Everyday Mathematics") to Singapore Math, a choice advocated by many protesting parents.
Parent Hsiao Su expressed concern that "Everyday Mathematics" presents four different ways to do addition, five ways for subtraction, four for multiplication and two for division.
"'Everyday Math' claims one method is no better than another, and that is false," he said. "By placing emphasis on a shotgun sample we confuse students. I have two boys at Juana Briones. Math is the subject I know most and hope to pass on to my sons. 'Everyday Math' does not place enough emphasis on standard algorithms."
Math curriculum specialist Lucy deAnda defended the recommended textbook. She said that by learning the non-traditional approaches, students ultimately gain a far deeper grasp of the standard methods and a greater fluency in applying math to real world problems.
"It gives them a solid foundation and moves to the standard algorithms, a compressing of those steps into a more elegant fashion," she said.
Parent Roxane Douvos said her daughter had had such a terrible experience with "Everyday Mathematics" in New Jersey that when the family moved to California she chose Palo Alto because it did not use the series.
"This approach gives students a cursory understanding of several ways of addressing concepts at the expense of mastery," Douvos said.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell asked if "Everyday Mathematics" could be adapted to a more centrist approach.
"(Everyday Mathematics) is over to the reform side. Is there a way to take this program and bring it more to the center so the concerns people have are addressed?" Caswell asked the staff. "Can we talk to some districts that have changed out of 'Everyday Math' and see if we can get the essence of what they've learned? Can curricular experts here acknowledge what people are concerned about and think of ways to bring us together?"
Board member Barbara Klausner said she thought it was possible to adapt "Everyday Mathematics" to a more centrist approach, "but I don't expect we're going to bring everyone along with us. I think we've lost track of the fact that this is a set of curricular materials, a tool in the toolbox. I do feel like we're not listening to each other."
Board member Camille Townsend indicated she was prepared to reject "Everyday Mathematics" because the 40-member text selection committee had inadvertently failed to include specified community participation in its process. "I'm not ready to experiment on 5,000 kids ... until I have better information on where the holes are in this program and how we can fill them in," Townsend said.
Board member Dana Tom said he had telephoned several local districts using the textbook and heard generally positive reviews. However, he said, "I've had plenty of e-mails about 'Everyday Math' being a complete train wreck in some districts. I have to feel really confident that we're going to do it well if we're going to try this."
Board President Barb Mitchell said there is not much return in continuing to seek the "ideal math textbook."
"There's a common interest in outcomes, proficiency and mastery. I don't think there's a solution that will make everybody comfortable." Palo Alto, she said, is not going to solve the ongoing national debate over math teaching.