Why Johnny Can’t Subtract

Many parents and teachers have complained to me that their children can’t subtract.  While most of us managed to get through grade school generally getting subtraction, the whole concept seems to be beyond our children’s abilities.

In the past I’ve blamed Math Investigations and it’s approach to teaching subtraction.  But those complaints have continued this year, even with our new instructional resource.  In fact, the complaints have gotten louder, with many parents upset that Connects moves through material quickly and doesn’t give kids the time to understand and learn procedures.

This pace, which is leading to frustration and a profound lack of understanding, is intentional.  Not because of Connects, but the PWCS Math Department.

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The VA DOE Loves Calculators

The VA DOE loves calculators, because arithmetic is hard and having calculators means teachers don’t have to teach arithmetic and the DOE doesn’t have to test for arithmetic fluency.

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Trust Nothing You Hear from the Education Establishment

When it comes to education we parents have to trust that the teachers and education administrators in our public school systems won’t do anything that will harm our children.  While I think most of our classroom teachers have our children’s best interests at heart, I doubt everything I hear from the education administrators & bureaucrats.

I’m sorry to say that, but I have seen far too much evidence that the education administrators at the local, state, and federal level are corrupt and will willingly and knowingly lie or distort facts, to trust a word they say anymore.  Unfortunately, debunking their lies usually requires a degree of professional skepticism coupled with a willingness to dig into and understand details, something our elected officials are unwilling or unable to do.

The net effect is that the corrupt liars are setting education policy in this county, state, and country and our children are suffering because of it.

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Blame the Teachers, Part (3)

Blame the teachers.  That’s the advice from PWCS for anyone with concerns about the Math program.

I think PWCS is wrong.  I don’t think our teachers are at fault for the problems that continue in our elementary level math program.  I don’t think our elementary level teachers have the autonomy the school division says they do because they have to teach to the test.  Not the SOLs, the CFAs. Read the rest of this entry »

Blame the Teachers, Part (2)

Blame the teachers.  That’s the advice from PWCS for anyone with concerns about the Math program.

During the Math informational presentation at the January 2 2013 school board meeting PWCS staff made a number of statements that I felt deserved a bit more clarification.  This is part (2) of that series.

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Blame the Teachers

Blame the teachers.  That’s the advice from PWCS for anyone with concerns about the Math program.

According to PWCS staff, teachers developed the assessments and have the authority and autonomy to select and use any materials they want in any order no matter what the recommended pacing might suggest.  Teachers can even disavow instructional materials entirely, if they so desire.  Lesson pacing is just a suggestion, not set in stone, and teachers can teach lessons in any order they want based on what they believe will best meet the needs of their diverse community of students.  Our teachers teach the curriculum, not a textbook.

Any concerns or questions anyone has with what’s being taught, the manner in which it’s being taught, the order in which it’s being taught, what’s being tested, or how responses are being graded needs to bring those concerns to the attention of their child’s teacher.  Central office, and the Math Department, exist solely to create learning environments to enhance teacher professional development and student learning.

Got that teachers?  According to PWCS, when it comes to Math, it’s all on you.

If any teachers are feeling like they just got thrown under the bus by PWCS, watch out for the tires, they sting.

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Summer Break & Summer Work

Summer Break

Just a reminder to our readers that we tend to take a break from posting over the summer.  We will return with test score data when scores are released to the public in late July or early August.  Until then, conversations will continue on our facebook page, but articles will not be posted here regularly.

Summer Work

We remind parents of children in grades 3 – 8 that the school system will be implementing a new math program in the Fall.  The school division doesn’t appear to have done any sort of analysis of the gaps between the knowledge expectations of the new program and the Math Investigations based program we’ve been using, nor made any effort to provide instruction to fill those gaps.  As a result, next year will be a challenge for some students as Math Connects, the new program, has different knowledge and work expectations than Math Investigations, the old program.

The biggest challenge will be overcoming the different work expectations.  Our old Math Investigations based program requires students to solve a handful of problems to demonstrate understanding of a concept; Math Connects, our new program, expects students to solve 20 questions as a warm-up.  So be prepared for lots of complaining and whining.

As far as content gaps are concerned: below is a list of topics you may want to ensure your child understands before the school year starts.  These are topics that Math Connects expects students to have learned that Math Investigations doesn’t cover in its core program in the same grade level, if at all.  The list is not all inclusive as I’m sure I’ve missed some topics.  Some teachers have covered these topics, so your child may have already been exposed to or taught them.

Soon to be 3rd Graders

Addition and subtraction facts through 10 + 10 or 20 – 10, to automatic recall (which means they can correctly solve 20 fact equations in 2 minutes).  Pay particular attention to subtraction facts and operations as Investigations doesn’t give subtraction the attention it deserves and many of our students struggle to understand subtraction.

Standard algorithms for addition and subtraction up to or from 999.

Soon to be 4th Graders

Math Facts:  Addition and subtraction facts through 10 + 10 or 20 – 10, to automatic recall.   Multiplication and division facts through 12 x 12 to automatic recall, as required per the VA SOLs.  Automatic recall means 20 fact equations solved correctly in 2 minutes or less.  Students will need to recall both the multiplication AND division facts.

Standard Algorithms for addition and subtraction.

Soon to be 5th Graders

Math Facts:  Addition and subtraction facts through 10 + 10 or 20 – 10, to automatic recall.   Multiplication and division facts through 12 x 12, to automatic recall.  Automatic recall means they can correctly solve 20 fact equations in 2 minutes or less.

Operations with Whole Numbers: Standard Algorithms for addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Standard Algorithm for long division, with a 1 digit divisor and remainder (e.g. 154 divided by 5).

Fractions:  Simplifying or reducing fractions, making fractions similar by finding a common denominator, adding and subtracting fractions with dissimilar denominators by finding a common denominator.   This is basically performing operations with fractions arithmetically, instead of with folded bits of paper or clock faces.

Soon to be 6th Graders

Math Facts: Addition and subtraction facts through 10 + 10 or 20 – 10, to automatic recall.   Multiplication and division facts through 12 x 12, to automatic recall.  Automatic recall means they can correctly solve 20 fact problems in 2 minutes or less.

Operations with Whole Numbers and Decimals:  Standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, and multiplication.  Standard algorithm for long division, with both whole numbers and decimals.

Fractions & Mixed Numbers:  Simplifying or reducing fractions, making fractions similar by finding a common denominator, adding and subtracting fractions with dissimilar denominators by finding a common denominator.   This is basically performing operations with fractions & mixed numbers arithmetically, instead of with folded bits of paper or clock faces.

Rumormongering

When I founded this blog I promised myself that I would do my best not to spread unsubstantiated rumors and that I’d research issues before publishing them so as to not stir pots with incorrect information.  Please forgive me as I take a step back from that commitment with this next article.

As some of you are aware, the school division recently adopted new math textbooks, which are supposed to be used in division classrooms starting this Fall (2012).   The school board approved McGraw Hill’s Math Connects for kindergarten through grade 8, which is the reason for this article.

Rumor has it that the division is considering a phased implementation of Math Connects rather than implementing the textbooks in all grade levels in the Fall.  The rumored justification for the phased implementation is cost.  Word on the street is the school division simply does not have sufficient funds available to purchase 40,000 + new math textbooks in one year. Our BOCS has not approved the school division’s budget, yet, and might be interested to know that the budget just might not have enough money available for our children to be given state approved textbooks, even with the state kicking in a chunk of the cost of those textbooks.

Here’s the second part of the rumor.

Central office staff are apparently considering phasing-in Math Connects by implementing it in Grades 6 – 8 and K – 1 in the Fall, with grades 2 & 3 following in the Fall of 2013 and grades 4 & 5 in the Fall of 2014.

Assuming this is true, that’s a very bad decision, in my opinion.

The value of using a K – 8 series is the consistency between elementary and middle school because the 6th grade textbook picks up where the 5th grade textbook ended.  That doesn’t happen right now, and, as a result, our middle school teachers are having to teach concepts and procedures to our children that they should have learned in elementary school.

The phasing the school division is considering would keep those gaps in place until the Fall of 2015 when the first grade of Math Connects students hit middle school.

Math Investigations, the instructional program PWCS is currently following in elementary school, was not submitted to the VA DOE for review and has not been evaluated for content alignment with the 2009 VA SOLS.  As such, it is not recommended by the VA DOE for use in VA elementary schools.  The phasing the division is reportedly considering means that students currently in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades will be using math textbooks that have not been evaluated for content alignment with the current VA SOLs and are not recommended by the VA DOE.  These students will continue to use non-SOL aligned, non-state approved textbooks until they reach middle school.

One note.  The division did phase-in Math Investigations.  During the phase-in students continued to use the old SFAW textbooks.  The difference between then and now is that the old SFAW books had been reviewed by the VA DOE for content alignment with the VA SOLs and were recommended for use in Virginia schools.  So no PWCS student ever used a textbook that was not recommended by the VA DOE, at least not until they started using Math Investigations in 5th grade as Math Investigations was never recommended by the VA DOE for use in 5th grade, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

In this instance, the division appears to be considering allowing students to be taught with materials that are not recommended by the VA DOE and have not been evaluated against the VA SOLs. And they’ll be using those non-state approved, non-SOL aligned textbooks in SOL test years.

Did I mention that I thought the suggested phasing-in was poorly thought through?

In my opinion, if we have to phase in the new textbooks then we should do it in reverse order.  If we can afford a 2 year phase-in, then do grades 3 – 8 in the Fall of 2012 with kindergarten – 2nd grade following in the Fall of 2013.  That way the gaps between ES & MS can begin to be addressed and our children will be using textbooks that have been evaluated against the VA SOLs and are recommended by the VA DOE in their SOL test years.

If we have to do a 3 year phase-in then do grades 4 – 8 in the Fall of 2012, with 2nd and 3rd grades following in the Fall of 2013, and kindergarten and 1st grade going last in the Fall of 2014.  We’ll be able to begin addressing the gaps between ES & MS and, with the exception of our third graders, most of our children will be using textbooks that have been evaluated against the VA SOLs and are recommended by the VA DOE in their SOL test years.

There are two other fairly significant reasons for inverting the phase-in and starting with the upper grades, assuming a phase-in is required.

  • Math Investigations adequately met about half of the 2001 math SOLs for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, per the VA DOE evaluations.  That means that our current instructional program is heavily supplemented with materials from other sources. The 2009 SOLs, against which Math Investigations has not been evaluated, are more rigorous than the 2001 SOLs, per the VA DOE’s statements.   Math Connects adequately meets all of the more rigorous 2009 VA SOLs for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades (it also adequately meets the more rigorous 2009 SOLs for kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades).
  • There are content and procedural gaps between Math Investigations and Math Connects, and those gaps build every year.  The gaps don’t become significant until students move from 3rd to 4th grades.   Transitioning from a Math Investigations based 2nd grade program to a Math Connects based 3rd grade program will be a lot easier than transitioning from a Math Investigations based 5th grade program to a Math Connects based 6th grade program.

If we have to phase-in the new textbooks, we ought to consider starting with the upper grades.

PWCS Passing Fewer Students on VA Math SOL

PWCS has been passing fewer students on the VA Math SOL exams than other districts in the state since Math Investigations was mandated county-wide.

We recently received a copy of a presentation provided by the PWC Math department to elementary teachers as part of an in-service.  That presentation claimed that grade 3, 4, & 5 pass rates have increased since 2007 and indicated that Math Investigations, and the inquiry-based approach to instruction PWCS has adopted, was the cause of those increases.  This implication is not entirely accurate. It could even be considered misleading, if we assume district employees are in the business of reporting the truth rather than affirming that the programs they support are peachy-keen.

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PWCS Seating Math Textbook Adoption Committee

PWCS has begun accepting applications to serve on the Math Textbook Adoption Committee (see announcement below).  Applications are due by July 8 2011.

Math Investigations was not reviewed by the VA DOE and is not on the list of DOE recommended texts.
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Office of Mathematics Seeks Textbook Adoption Committee Members

June 20, 2011

On June 15, the Prince William County School Board approved the timeline and evaluation criteria for the adoption process for K–12 mathematics books. The Office of Mathematics is currently seeking Textbook Adoption Committee members. Any county resident who is interested in serving on the committee may obtain an application from the PWCS Mathematics Office by contacting Deborah Starry at 703.791.8849 or sending an email to starryda@pwcs.edu. It is also available on the Mathematics Web site at http://pwcs.math.schoolfusion.us.

Committee meetings will begin on August 2 and meet approximately twice per month through December 1. Most meetings will be held on Thursday evenings from 6–8 p.m. A limited number of spaces are available. The application deadline is July 8.

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