District 300 Takes a Look at Older Teaching Methods for Math

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Byline: Charles Keeshan Daily Herald Staff Writer

When recent high school graduates come looking for work at Otto Engineering in Carpentersville, the company gives them a basic math test.

In recent years, most have failed.

"We find that people who can do fifth- and sixth-grade arithmetic are different," said Otto President Jack Roeser. "They're unusual."

That's something Roeser and a local citizens group hope to change with a charter school in Dundee Unit District 300.

"What (schools) have done is removed the ability to do arithmetic because they want to teach mathematics theory," Roeser said. "Mathematical theory is fine for Bertrand Russell, but in the first six grades they've got to learn arithmetic."

The group, Citizens for Accountability in Public Education, says that's what it will do with what they call a "back to basics" core curriculum school in District 300.

But what exactly does that mean and how will it be different from what students are already learning?

The answer may lie in something called the Core Knowledge program, a relatively new curriculum that finds its roots in some decades-old teaching methods.

The program, now used in more than 800 schools in 44 states, caught Roeser's eye.

"It's a return to a content-rich curriculum, making sure children learn reading early and arithmetic, even through drill," he said.

Core Knowledge is also the centerpiece of the Thomas Jefferson Charter School, expected to open next year in Elk Grove Township District 59. Roeser has said his proposal will closely follow Thomas Jefferson plan.

Created in 1986 by University of Virginia professor and best-selling author E.D. Hirsch, the program bucks current trends that emphasize developing thinking skills instead of basic knowledge.

Instead, Core Knowledge says what students learn is just as important as how they learn.

"At most schools there's a lot of emphasis on the process and giving students educational tools," said Mike Marshall, associate director of Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation. "That is, if they give the kids these tools, they'll be able to get the educational content.

"What we say is the knowledge comes first. We say the tool is useless without the knowledge."

The Core Knowledge program works by clearly specifying what children should learn and when they should learn it.

At every grade level from kindergarten through eighth, the program outlines exactly what topics and facts a student should master before moving on to the next level. The material at each grade level builds directly upon the knowledge learned the previous year.

"We think schools don't have an answer to what a child should know and we're trying to answer that," Marshall said. "If you don't get explicit about what kids have to know, then they won't know enough. …