Duval Gives 'New Math' Good Grade; Supporters Say It Helps Students Understand, Not Memorize, but to Others It's Just Confusing

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Byline: TIA MITCHELL

Duval County school officials credit a new method of teaching mathematics -- that emphasizes problem solving and critical thinking over the ages-old approach of rote memorization -- with the steady improvement in test scores over the past several years.

But some parents and teachers say the new math is confusing to students and doesn't force them to absorb basic math procedures such as multiplication and division.

At the center of the debate is a new math program that has gradually taken hold in the school system since being introduced in 2001. There are no traditional textbooks, and much of class time is spent engaged in hands-on activities tied to everyday experiences.

Ed Pratt-Dannals, Duval County's associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the old way of teaching math rarely focused on applying concepts needed for a deeper understanding of the basic skills.

"We taught math for memorization, and some memorized it and some didn't," Pratt-Dannals said. "Now we teach material for understanding."

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests require this higher level of thinking, often encouraging students to solve word problems that require two or three steps. Because students are trained to apply math concepts, they are better able to think through these problems and solve them, Pratt-Dannals said.

He said improvements in math FCAT scores are proof the new method is working.

In 2002, 42 percent of Duval County's fourth-graders passed the math portion of FCAT. Statewide, 51 percent of fourth-graders passed. This year, 60 percent of Duval County fourth-graders passed math. Although that percentage is still below the state average of 64 percent, the gap has closed considerably.

TEACHING CONCEPTS

In elementary school the new program is called Math Investigations.

One second-grade lesson encourages students to work with a partner to find various ways to divide 10 cubes into two groups. This lesson helps students identify sums that equal 10, an essential component of addition that will help them later with more-complicated calculations.

Writers of the Math Investigations materials say the new method is better than rote memorization because students can forget basic facts, such as 8 + 7 = 15. But if they understand the concept behind the math, they will always be able to solve that problem.

Duval middle school teachers use a similar program called Connected Math, one of five mathematics programs identified as exemplary by the U.S. Department of Education in 1999.

Connected Math word problems use sales tax, tips and store discounts to teach students about calculating percentages.

In a more traditional setting, students would have been taught how to calculate those percentages, then applied the knowledge to solve other sample problems. Today's Duval County math teacher will let students come up with methods on their own, using what they already know and collaborating with classmates to come up with an answer.

These programs were first introduced in phases beginning in 2001. Last year, the new math programs became mandatory in every Duval County classroom.

SOME ARE FRUSTRATED

Some teachers aren't happy about that.

Sara Stolkner, a fifth-grade math teacher at Sabal Palm Elementary School, said Math Investigations assumes children will discover the lessons on their own, and there is no backup plan for when they don't. She feels the program is getting too much credit for the district's rising math scores.

"No, it's us," she said. "Anyone who is truly a teacher is going to find ways to make things work."

Angela Peterson, a first-grade teacher at Lone Star Elementary School, likes to use old worksheets to drill her students on math skills. She and other teachers feel Math Investigations has been forced upon them and that they are not welcome to use traditional textbooks and worksheets to supplement their lessons. …