After more than two years of acrimonious parent debate, the Palo Alto school board last week voted to adopt a controversial new math curriculum--one that does not include a textbook.
Children in third through fifth grades will start to see the new material, "Investigations" published by Dale Seymour, in their classrooms this fall.
The math debate divided parents into two camps--those who favor combining new teaching methods with old ones and those who feel that the traditional approach is stronger. The debate continued until the moment the school board voted last Tuesday, as two dozen parents paraded to the podium to voice their views. Both sides presented petitions signed by several hundred people.
In the end, four out of the five board members voted to adopt "Investigations."
Board member Amado Padilla said he voted for it only after being assured by district staff that the program would be evaluated thoroughly before all of the materials are purchased.
Board member John Tuomy voted against adopting the materials. "When all is said and done, I still think kids need a textbook to refer to." He said he preferred to wait until something better was published and continue using the current book, "Mathematics Unlimited Teachers Resource Book," published by Holt.
In an effort to assuage those critics who see "Investigations" as too radical a shift, the four school board members who favored "Investigations" did some last-minute wordsmithing to make sure the word "balance" would appear prominently in their policy directive so that teachers would aim to blend both the traditional and more innovative approaches in their classrooms.
"I think balance is very important," said Cathy Howard, a former middle school math teacher who is now the district's math specialist. "It means paying attention and making sure you're focused . . . in the emphasis of basic skills that you don't neglect teaching concepts," and vice versa, she said. Teachers must still adhere to a newly-adopted set of standards for what math concepts children should know at each grade level.
But some parents don't see a balance. What they wanted was a choice for their children.
"I'm incredibly discouraged," said Jim Maples, a parent and former school board candidate who has been vocal in urging the district to continue emphasizing the basics in math. "The rhetoric has moved a little bit more to that but there is nothing to prevent them" from simply embracing the newer approach and dropping the old, he said. "It seems outrageous that the district could ignore a whole segment of the community. If they could provide some choice it could lower the level of discord."
A committee formed two years ago, composed of five parents and 22 teachers (about two teachers per school) as well as some administrators, finished reviewing several math programs this spring, recommending the Seymour materials, which had been tried out at nine elementary schools over the last year, along with other publishers' materials.
Even supporters of "Investigations" agree that it is unreasonable to conform to Seymour's move away from such basic math operations as carrying and borrowing or long division. There is no plan to drop such instruction in Palo Alto schools.
Picking math materials stirred a long and often rancorous debate lasting more than two years. Some parents were concerned that without textbooks, they could not keep track of their children's progress. They also were concerned that the newer approach to math would eclipse the teaching of basic concepts.
Other parents saw their children blossom as they were taught math with a newer approach. "I feel like the board really showed they were listening," said Escondido parent Kathy Durham. "The math program is already in place. What we're doing is substituting what teachers have had to pull together themselves. We're going to have something that's coherent, something that's districtwide. That to me is a major step forward, and not at all a radical change."
Beginning this fall, teachers will introduce the first Seymour unit (4 to 6 week topics, such as geometry or fractions) to third through fifth grade students. By the end of the year, a maximum of three units will be put in place in each grade, out of a total of 8 to 10 units per grade.
The Seymour materials, which consist of a series of "master sheets" teachers copy and hand out to students, will be supplemented by Holt materials, which have pages of traditional problems to help students practice their skills.
Back up to the Table of Contents Page