Tonight might be one of the last opportunities for parents to plea with Board Members to allow a traditional opt-in program for teaching math.

On the agenda, are two recommendations.

  1. Gil Trenum’s proposal for the “traditional opt-in” program.
  2. Dr. Otaigbe’s proposal for a “blended approach”.

I strongly prefer the recommendation from Gil Trenum which would allow parents a choice in the manner in which mathematics are taught to their children.

We have discussed this topic in some detail previously.

Additionally, Greg Barlow a fellow Prince William County School Parent gives us his perspective on Math Investigations:

My name’s Greg Barlow and I’m a regular reader of your blog.

As you might surmise, yes, I’m the PW parent who’s been the subject of a lot of scrutiny – and one or two public tongue lashings by PWCS officials regarding the county’s elementary mathematics program, “Investigations in Number, Data, and Space.”  I’ve followed your coverage of the issue, and though tempted on many occasions to post commentary I’ve elected not to do so if only because I’ve felt the issue is more important than the individuals involved.  But since it appears the PWCS Board is poised for action next Wednesday I thought I’d lend my “2 cents worth” to your coverage of the issue.

Whether or not one believes in the educational efficacy of the “Math Investigations” ideology/philosophy, the issue before the Board is really one of good governance.  It has become a question of whether or not our elected officials are willing to exercise their oversight responsibilities and make a hard choice that may put them at odds with a small but vocal group of public servants who, in my opinion, have placed personal ideology ahead of the educational content needed for children to achieve and succeed in an academic discipline.

Regardless of what one thinks of the philosophy or of the actual program itself, one of the main reasons this is issue hasn’t just “gone away” is because of “how we got it” in the first place.  And that’s where the question of good governance is at hand.

From the beginning, I and the other parents who are not enamored with the content and results of this “new math” program, have held the position that if PWCS had followed the state and local guidelines and processes and selected this program in accordance with the applicable law and regulations – then all we’d be left to do is exercise our rights as parents and citizens to voice our displeasure with the program and advocate for something better.  But pretty much from the beginning the answers to questions raised such as how the program was selected, when were parents notified of the selection process, whether or not there was a Board-approved Pilot Program, and whether or not the program was approved by the Virginia Department of Education have proved “challenging” for PWCS staff to answer…even more so to provide consistent answers to the same question when asked by different citizens…or even Board members.  So that’s why I, and a number of other like-minded parents resorted to FOIA requests to get the straight answers from PWCS.  Which brings us to the good governance issue.

The Virginia Department of Education delegates the responsibility for textbook selection to the local districts within the Commonwealth.  In the exercise of that responsibility, local school districts must comply with the governing elements of both state law (Virginia Administrative Code) and local text adoption policy and regulations – it’s not an “optional” procedure.  As long as a district is considering adoption of textbooks/materials that are on the Virginia DOE approved list of texts, there’s no requirement for the district staff to seek local school board approval for the review and evaluation criteria used in the selection process – it’s simply delegated to the Superintendent’s staff.  However, if the staff is considering a text that’s not on the state approved list (as was the case with Math Investigations Grade 5 – rejected by VA DOE) the criteria to be used by the evaluation committee in the review and assessment of these textbooks must have the official approval of the local school board.

In pursing the countywide adoption Math Investigations as the only primary elementary mathematics materials for all PWCS schools, The PWCS staff never informed the Board that they were favoring a non-state approved math text/materials series.  And the staff never presented their proposed review and evaluation criteria to the Board for formal approval.  Why?  Well, there are a couple of PWCS Policies and Regulations that make it very difficult for staff to select instructional materials that are not approved by the state – or as is with the case of Investigations actually rejected by DOE – and not aligned with the Virginia standards (PWCS Board Policy and Regulation 653 series).  Not only does state law require local board formal approval of review and evaluation criteria for non-state approved texts, but also local PWCS regulations require alignment with the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) as part of those evaluation criteria.  Yet the formal rubric developed by the PWCS central office staff for the selection of the math texts did not include SOL alignment in the selection criteria.  And in fact, had this been included, it would have been extremely challenging to make Investigations the district’s “top rated choice.”  It’s the VA DOE’s lowest ranked text for K-4 mathematics SOL support and was rejected by the DOE for Grade 5 because it does not adequately meet the state requirements of mathematical content.  There’s an additional local sticking point in the regulations – PWCS instructional regulation policy precludes the purchase of non‑state-approved materials for anything other than supplemental materials – they cannot be adopted as the basic textbooks.  Investigations Grade 5 falls in this category.

The risk to the staff in submitting review and evaluation criteria to the Board for approval was that the Board would likely have actually reviewed the proposed criteria and posed some questions concerning why they were pursuing a non-state approved text in the first place and why SOL alignment wasn’t included in the proposed selection criteria?  And that might have led to some uncomfortable moments because the staff would have had to reveal that Investigations is the one elementary math text/materials program that least adequately supports the VA SOLs…and that it was rejected by the VA DOE for Grade 5 implementation.  And even if the Board had approved the review and evaluation criteria and authorized the staff to pursue non-state approved materials the members may also have asked to see the results of the evaluation showing how the texts were “scored” by the committee in relation to the textbook evaluation criteria rubric that was supposed to have been used to select the math materials.  That’s something that never happened, because it never added up to the “right answer” of making Investigations the top pick.  If you’re interested, I’ve also attached the actually used final evaluation criteria obtained through FOIA – a group of subjective “likes” and “dislikes” from which Investigations was deemed “top choice.”  So instead of securing Board approval, the central staff instead elected to go it alone and hope no one ever asked probing questions.  Unfortunately a goodly number of parents have pressed the issue.

The Good Governance challenge is as follows.  Not only has the PWCS staff selected a controversial mathematics program and mandated implementation in each and every school across the county (an unprecedented insertion of central staff direction and control for elementary core instruction in PWCS) they did so outside of the letter and intent of both the state and local regulations governing the public education process.  In my opinion this was because of the desire of a small but vocal group of central office staff members to force a particular philosophy/ideology into the classroom at the expense of mathematical content.  The information I’m sharing with you is the exact same information that the Board has in its possession right now.  They’ve been made explicitly aware of this in correspondence for at least the last 6 months now.  (I think that’s perhaps why Chairman Johns had an action item on the 4 Feb Board meeting agenda to vote to stop the 5th grade implementation – though that item was withdrawn before the meeting and did not go to vote.)

When the Board approved Investigations they did so with the understanding that the staff had been compliant with the laws and regulations governing textbook review and selection.  The Board acted in good faith at the time – they’re the oversight agency, not necessarily the experts in the nuances of state and local education regulatory guidance.  The PWCS staff – also public officials are though expected to know and comply with the letter and intent of the governing regulations.  That they didn’t do so is troubling.  The extra provisions of the state and local PWCS regulations regarding adoption of non‑state approved materials are there for a reason – to ensure that the interests of the county’s children and the content of materials used to teach these children are put in ahead of the personal ideological desires of individuals and staff agencies charged with administering public education programs.  The question now is whether or not the Board is willing to execute their oversight authority and responsibility and take swift and positive corrective action in this matter.

I think all parents who’ve petitioned the Board over the last year and half are smart enough to realize that there’s more than just the above at stake.  PWCS has spent over $3 million on this program to date.  It would be an embarrassment – both professionally and politically, and likely fiscally to admit that the central staff didn’t follow the letter of the law in adopting a very expensive and nationally controversial educational program.  In fact, some of us have been “gently nudged” to not pursue the legal end of the debate by some well-placed PWC officials.  I think they know that this is a problem.  That’s fine, if only because there is a slim chance that the Board may actually vote on the initiative to allow parents to choose the mathematics instructional program they prefer for their children (Johns / Trenum initiative – meeting agenda action item for 4 Mar 09).  It would end the current controversy outright if this motion were to pass, and I think it’s a way out of the larger challenge of authority and compliance that the Board would probably prefer to address off camera with the Superintendent and his staff.  In any case, it is time to support the adherence with the laws and regulations that govern public education in Prince William County, and it’s the Board’s responsibility to carry out that charge.  I’m cautiously optimistic that the Johns/Trenum initiative will gain support of the Board as a whole.

This is long enough as it is so I won’t take up your time with the educational/intellectual arguments about the merits or lack thereof in the Investigations curriculum.  I think you probably know what my background is and my thoughts on this front.  I believe if a majority of our Board members had children in elementary school subjected to the Investigations program this would have been resolved long ago; I think the two out of eight members who do – “get it.”  And just so you know, I don’t believe that the quality of public education ought to be a partisan issue.  This has everything to do with mathematics content and children’s capacity to learn such content at appropriate elementary grade levels.  The advocates of the Investigations ideology somehow feel that the content of traditional mathematics isn’t appropriate for certain groups of learners, yet never get around to defining explicitly just which children are in these “groups.”  My family’s very blessed – regardless of what happens with the Board’s initiatives my wife and I have the background to know that our children need a much more rigorous mathematical education to succeed that what’s offered in Investigations and the means to ensure our children get that education – even if it means paying for the appropriate extra‑curricular instruction outside of the school system.  Ironically, those children without such family means and who can least afford a sub-par mathematics education are the ones who are being placed at the greatest risk for future failure by adults who should know better.

Greg Barlow

Additionally, CitizenTom has a much more eloquently written threads on this subject matter.

28 Thoughts to “Math Investigations on the Agenda Tonight”

  1. Sceptical

    Yes, Citizen Tom has the luxury of not being emotionally involved as the parents are.
    Clearly the school board are beginning to recognize the problems. We need them to act sooner rather than later to save our kids math abilities.
    Those of us directly involved already understand and teach at home to counteract the damage and confusion that MI is causing.

    The rest of you need to figure it out and get writing. Today is the best day to do that. Go through the schools web site to get to contact your school board member. Do it now!


  2. I also support Mr Trenum’s Opt In. While I think Dr Otaigbe’s proposal was done in good faith, I’m concerned that it just doesn’t go far enough.

    Yes, teachers deserve the autonomy to select the instructional materials they believe will work best for their students. But how can they provide those materials if there isn’t any money to buy them? And if their school Principal is an avowed Investigations advocate, is it reasonable to expect that that Principal would be willing to divert funds allocated for Investigations materials to the purchase of other materials?

    Yes, teachers should be encouraged to differentiate teaching for more advanced students. But last time I checked, that’s what the school system says they’re providing now.

    I agree with Alanna. Mr Trenum’s proposal is the only viable option for parents who want a different program for their children.

  3. Poor Richard

    Off topic, but didn’t want readers to miss an article in this morning’s
    WaPo on A2 “Report Cites Problems In ICE Training Program – GAO
    Says Key Controls Are Missing”. The authors warn that confusion over
    the purpose of 287(g)could result in “unmanageable number” of
    low-priority illegal immigrants to ice as well as “misuse of
    authority” by local officials.

    I am a supporter of ICE detainment and eventual deporting of
    convicted felons – that is my understanding of 287(g). Random
    sweeps are not.

    OK, back to math – two and two still equal four, right?

  4. Alanna

    Chairman-at-Large – Milt Johns;

    Occoquan – Grant Lattin;

    Dumfries District – Betty Covington;

    Neabsco District – Julie Lucas;

    Coles District – Michael Otaigbe;

    Woodbridge District – Denita Ramirez;

    Gainesville District – Don Richardson;

    Brentsville District – Gil Trenum;;

  5. Moon-howler

    And I believe in giving the program a chance to work. I support Dr. Otaigbe’s plan as a second choice. My grandson is doing well in math under MI. He seems to understand what he is doing and is able to articulate his reasoning.

    My concern is also that curriculum support materials such as textbooks will turn into a referendum of sorts. That is dead wrong.

  6. Moon-howler

    Poor Richard, Thanks. I will go check it out. No, 2 + 2 is not still equal to 4.

  7. DB

    The great thing about traditional math programs is that there actually is nothing to buy. With the internet and it’s vast resources, any teacher worth his or her salt can research and find a plethora (sp) of lessons, work sheets, assesments etc. available on the net. Math and many other subjects do NOT require work books, text books, and a purchased set of manipulatives from a specific company. But shhhh! those in the business of selling school systems set curriculums with accompaning texts would rather you not know that what they sell is easily aquired for FREE from multiple places on the internet including the VA DOE website that BTW has free sol based lesson plans available for all to download.

  8. “OK, back to math – two and two still equal four, right?”

    That depends upon what base you are working in. THAT was the idiot math experiment of my generation…new math.

  9. Moon-howler

    But those different bases enabled us to have PCs so life isn’t totally bad. Binary and hexadecimal come screaming out at me.

  10. Alanna

    The real question is are any of the numbers ‘friendly’?

  11. Sceptical

    42 is, ask Douglas Adams.
    0100 0010

    No, working in octal is pointless for most people. Interesting to be shown different bases but not the core math.

    Same thing with Math Investigations; useful to show how the numbers work as a SUPPLEMENT.
    Totally inadequate as a core text. These kids will suffer for years.

    Wake up parents!

  12. Rebecca

    Once a person learns to change number bases, one understands base 10 a thousand times better. That opens up an entire arena of mathematics.

    I am not suggesting the study of other bases for elementary school but it also is nothing to scoff at in secondary math.

  13. Ed Myers

    It is the lack of understanding of mathematical concepts that prevents children from becoming scientists and engineers. We don’t need people to be good or fast at arithmetic because we have replaced that need with computers (e.g. cash registers, calculators, etc.) What we need is for people to understand the time value of money, conversion of base 10 to hex (what is the HTML colors? a hex number) slopes of lines, statistical analysis, etc. Computers can cover for people with poor arithmetic skills. Computers cannot replace humans with bad mathematical skills.

    A contemporary example of the dangers of bad mathematical skills: No one questioned the math behind the derivitives of subprime mortgages and see what mess we are in now. It wasn’t bad arithmetic, it was bad math.

    The anti-MI people are so focused on arithmetic at the detriment of mathematics.

  14. Steven Santee

    Please provide proof that it is the lack of understanding of mathematical concepts that prevents children from becoming scientists and engineers. If you can’t do arithmetic, you likely couldn’t even get accepted into an engineering program let alone survive the course work.
    The NMAP correctly argues that skills and understanding must be developed simultaneously. But what you propose is exactly what MI’s approach is … don’t worry about skills, understanding is what is important. We anti-MI people completely disagree with this thought and we want a traditional text as the basis of math instruction so that our children get both understanding and skills.

  15. Mr Meyers – the collapse of the derivatives market had nothing what so ever to do with poor understanding of mathematics. To try to connect the two is to grossly oversimplify the derivatives market and grossly overestimate an elementary math curricula to the point of insanity.

  16. Ed Myers

    Steven, Monster_Mom makes my point. She is not worried about math, just arithmetic and doesn’t get it how much math affects our lives negatively when we don’t understand it (e.g. mortages.) Spending time drilling arithmetic tables is time not spent learning math. Learning math is more important than developing arthmetic skills because we have computers to offset poor arithmetic skills. Engineers always have a calculator so they don’t need to mentally do 2+2=4 in their heads. An engineer that doesn’t understand force vectors will design a bridge that fails. An engineer that understands force vectors but doesn’t know 8×7 off the top of his head is still a good engineer.

  17. A person who doesn’t know what 8 x 7 is off the top of his head won’t be able to complete a college level differential equations class and will never become an engineer. He / she may, however, become an elementary math teacher.

  18. Steve Santee

    How to you expect an engineer to learn force vectors if he/she doesn’t understand vector arithmetic? How will they understand that without trigonometry and that without algebra and geometry? Mathematics is extremely vertically integrated. If you don’t get the basic skills down in elementary school, you have a huge uphill climb to get into any of the STEM fields.
    I think it is impossible for a student to get through an engineering school with only a conceptual understanding of math. You need skills too. Understanding and skills are inseparably linked. The PWCS math dept and MI developers (and yourself) believe you only need understanding. Monster_Mom’s point (as is mine) is that kids need to learn both. Here is a good article on the subject:

  19. Meyers, my daughter tested at the 8th grade level in math when she was in the 2nd grade…she was doing simple algebra by the 1st grade. I don’t believe for one moment that she would have been given, or even allowed, the tools to such rapid advancement if MI had existed then.

  20. Sorry, I misspelled your name (Myers).

  21. Ed Myers

    We polarize to make it easier to draw distintions. Of course I don’t think we only need to understand math without practicing doing arithmetic. But I do think that more emphasis should be placed on understanding mathematical concepts and less on rote memorization of formulas. I think the opponents of MI miss the cultural changes that computers have brought to society and how those changes need to be factored into how we teach quantitative subjects.

    AWCheney, for example, likely has a child that can apply a formula by doing the arithmetic but doesn’t understand how equations represent 2,3 or n dimensional space. It is that mathematical understanding (not the arithmetic computation) that is needed for creative problem solving. I want my children to be knowledge workers solving problems and not computational robots competing with spreadsheets and asian workers in a global economy. Problem solvers are valuable. Tasks that require good arithmetic skills can be outsourced or replaced with a computer.

  22. Sceptical

    Well there in lies the rub; they are not teaching the arithmetic piece.
    They have just started doing arithmetic worksheets in 2nd grade how far through the school year?
    And why, because the kids can’t do basic arithmetic and from what I have seen, they don’t understand the numbers any better.

    They give the kids so many different approaches to adding and subtracting that it takes them ages to figure out which works best.
    They don’t learn a conceptual understanding of math doing that.

    By practicing, they make the connections that MI seeks to create but in MI, they only do one arithmetic problem in 45 minutes! The spend most of the time discussing how each group did it.

    Nobody disagrees that conceptual understanding is important but Math Investigations does a terrible job of that as well. It is a disgrace to waste any more money on it.

  23. “AWCheney, for example, likely has a child that can apply a formula by doing the arithmetic but doesn’t understand how equations represent 2,3 or n dimensional space.”

    I have a child who graduated high school with a 4.+ (can’t remember the exact additional fraction) average, and was being recruited by colleges in the 9th grade. You make a great many assumptions Myers…which is probably why you are such an advocate of MI, despite the evidence to the contrary.

  24. Sceptical

    Don’t take it personally..the facts are enough to finish off MI then the likes of “myers” will crawl back into their hole looking for another fad to excuse the kids from hard work.
    Try learning a musical instrument by self discovery and see how far you get. Another mathematically based vertically structured discipline that requires you do walk before you can run.

  25. Sceptical, she also studied the violin from the 5th grade, played softball, and participated in other extracurricular activities. She’ll be graduating college in May with a degree in physics and a minor in classics (originally she was going for a double major but the senior thesis class in classics was just a bit too much for her this semester…she’ll get that degree later). She is a product of the Prince William County Public School System (kindergarten through graduation), does NOT have a photographic memory, and was never subjected to “experimental programs” such as MI. Myers is a putz!

  26. Civil Religion Sucks

    I note that no one addresses my point (except to throw spitballs and boast about how smart their kids are in spite of their parents): computers are a game changer for society and therefore also for education. Is what (maybe) worked 20 years ago when computers were not essentials for life still true now that they are? When my school overemphasized computation over mathematics I had to teach my children other ways to think about adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing numbers so they understood the concepts and not just the answer for the test. I don’t think one size fits all but it is a lot easier for parents to hand out arithmetic drill sheets if they think their child is lacking that education than it is to teach MI because their children missed that when the school only did drill sheets.

  27. Sceptical

    Yes, computers have changed society, so has the $5 calculator as Everyday Math puts it but what if you calculator is busted?
    It still helps to be able to do simple arithmetic in your head and that doesn’t come without practice. Do you want your kid to whip out a calculator every time they need to figure something out?
    Traditional math should not mean only one way, no explanation. It means teach and practice.
    These kids spend 45 minutes on one or two problems because the teacher sets the task and gives some ideas, they break into groups to decide how to solve it and then all come together to describe their solution.
    There is not enough practice for memorization and they show them too many confusing ways of solving it.
    Group solution means they are not thinking about it, they are talking about it. They do not learn mental arithmetic.

  28. If these kids are taught to “group-think” every mathematical problem, taking their time to this extent (45 minutes on one or two problems??), how are they going to make it in the REAL WORLD of mathematics. PSATs and SATs are TIMED…and they make a huge difference in whether a child is accepted at a decent college or university, most certainly whether they could qualify for any scholarships. It’s been proven, and I’ve seen it first-hand, that how and what a child learns in their earliest years strongly impacts their later education. From what I have seen and heard, Mathematics Investigations will set a child up to fail.

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