Pelham K-5 Math Curriculum Criticized During Math Forum

A panel of three professors spoke about the weaknesses of the "Investigation in Number, Data and Space” curriculum during a community math forum in Pelham Tuesday.


As one would expect from a conference featuring three noted, mathematicians, there were no  easy answers given during Tuesday’s Community Math Night in Pelham.

The forum, which took place inside the , was hosted by the Pelham Math Committee and attended by more then three dozen community members. The Pelham Math Committee is an organization dedicated to removing the Pelham school district’s controversial elementary school math curriculum, “Investigation in Numbers, Data and Space.”

Alan Siegel, a computer science professor at the New York University joined Stanley Ocken and Ethan Akin, both professors at City College of New York, gave their observations on the math curriculum and during the forum.

Jennifer Slattery, one of the members of the Pelham Math Committee, said the professors weren’t simply chosen because of their documented opposition to the Investigations. Slattery said the professors also have insight into the type of skills the district’s students will need in order to successfully take math courses at the college level and obtain math level careers.

“A math level career isn’t just being a mathematician or being physicist, it’s also science, engineering, medicine and finance,” Slattery said.

The district’s elementary school math curriculum, “Investigations in Number, Data and Space," has come under fire from a number of parents who believe and doesn’t place enough emphasis on a traditional, systematic algorithm-based learning and homework.

The concerns have been shared by parents and educators across the nation.

Last month, the Pelham school board agreed to to review the district’s math curriculum at a cost not to exceed $18,000. Their work is scheduled to begin this month.

Akin, who has studied concepts for teaching K-12 math during the past decade, said that Investigations didn’t do an adequate job of drilling the basics of math into students at an early enough age. This becomes problematic as those students move into more advanced levels of math, because processes that should come naturally to students are cumbersome and difficult.

Ocken said one major flaw with Investigations and similar curriculum is that it deals with special cases at the expense of general procedures. Although it’s important to be able t illustrate initial computations to students at times, Oken said Investigations fails to transition students from pictorial representations to abstract math concepts by the time they are in high school.

“Six divided by three has lots of real life interpretations,” Oken said. “Three divided by eight has fewer real life computations and when a student gets to high school and encounters the expression x divided by y, it’s extremely important to understand that expression has zero real life computations.”

Siegel recalled one student he had who was bright, but had learned math through Investigations.

“On the mid-term, he was 20 points below the next lowest performing student in my class and he was the only student to fail my course,” Siegel said. “He was smart enough to get into NYU, but with his background he was not going to be able to specialize in economics, computer science, business... I am here in part because I regret not being able to get him up to speed and students like him.”

During the session, one woman asked the panel if supplementing her child’s lessons with Singapore math, another curriculum, would be enough to make up for the deficiencies of Investigations.

Ocken said he didn’t believe that supplementation is effective.

“Skills have to be taught in a carefully sequenced way and part of the art of educating children is how to understand the sequence, the procedures that they are learning—the importance of difficulty,” Siegel said.

Claire Allen, a district parent, said the forum was informative.

“It made me realize that it is important process for us to evaluate other math programs outside of Investigations,” Allen said.

The Pelham Math Committee is expected to have a video stream of the forum up on their Web site this week.

Cammie Byerley January 28, 2012 at 12:10 AM
I read the paper. I think they refute some major misinterpretations of constructivism such as discovery learning and actually say that some people who really understand constructivism think that they are constructivists too. I think that the authors and the paper and myself both agree with their statement: “There is unanimous agreement that what is desired is not rote learning but learning with understanding. We need research that will tell us how to assess better than we do now when a student is performing by rote, and when and to what degree understanding has been achieved. For a long time there has been evidence (Katona, 1940) that knowledge and skill acquired with understanding is retained better and transferred better than that which is acquired by rote.” Perhaps the curriculum in your district is awful, I actually don't feel qualified to weigh in on how kids learn elementary math because I'm doing my PhD research in student thinking in Calculus(and yes, I teach Calculus at a University). I do know that my university students have very few meanings for mathematical ideas and have memorized rote procedures with no understanding. When choosing a new curriculum, make sure to ask for help from a math educator in picking something that doesn't promote rote learning. Don't just go "back to basics" and think that the kids will have any idea what they are doing when the find answers quickly and easily with algorithms.
Elizabeth Carson January 28, 2012 at 03:04 AM
In defense of mindless rote http://www.nychold.com/akin-rote01.html
Neil Hatfield January 28, 2012 at 07:10 AM
There is an issue with Ocken's switch between 'interpretations' and 'computations'. These words aren't synonyms. If you take the stand that he meant "computations", he's wrong. There is but one computation (by this I mean final result, not method) for 6 divided by 3, namely two, for 3 divided by 8, namely 3/8ths or 0.375, and there is but one computed result for x divided by y, x/y. Okay, so maybe he meant 'interpretations' after all he's a mathematician, he must know his math. Six divided by 3: how many 3's are in 6, how much is in each of three groups when sharing 6 items, the relative magnitude of 6 with respect to 3; there's three. Three divided by eight: how many 8's are in 3, how much is in each of of eight groups when sharing 3 items, the relative magnitude of 3 with respect to 8; again three interpretations. Let's check x/y (let's ignore his blatantly encapsulated meanings for variables and adopt it ourselves): how many y's are in x, how much is in each of y groups when sharing x items, the relative size of x with respect to y; again, three interpretations. Hmm, Dr. Ocken claimed that there were many, less, and none...I came up with three for each. And yes, those interpretations overlap. If we actually provide meaning for the variables x and y, I can create infinitely many interpretations for x/y. Again, Dr. Ocken, the mathematician, is wrong. By the way, did I mention that I am a mathematician?
Cammie Byerley January 29, 2012 at 10:52 PM
The Pelham Math Community deleted a comment I made about their interpretation of the 250 page statistical report investigating the effects of various curriculum on student achievement. They say they want expert advice and then delete it! The comment linked to Neil's analysis of the statistical report and made the good point that PMC attributed findings to the statistical report that were not actually in the report. Neil and I also care a lot about the quality of math in your district-we are trying to push people to think critically about what is being said and who is qualified to be an expert. I'd take a look at another interpretation of the statistical report-one written by a statistician and a math educator. You know it must be good if they deleted it! http://mathlovergrowsup.teachforus.org/2012/01/29/pelham-math-committee-misrepresents-statistics-in-math-war-over-curriculum/ I'd look critically at how your elementary school teachers are trained, what they understand about math and how they are implementing the curriculum. You are seeing problems at home, and I'd guess that professional development might be a better use of your district's money than changing books. It is common for teachers to misunderstand what constructivism says about learning and implement ineffective strategies-maybe if everyone involved learns what this theory says the implementation of the curriculum will improve and people will be happier.
Ricardo January 31, 2012 at 10:27 PM
So easy to debate when it is not your kid… here is what I fear for my kids: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YLlX61o8fg Nowhere close to the depth of your academic experience, just concerns from a real father in the real world. I really hope you are right.


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