Purdy schools alter instruction strategy in math classes

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Parents say they are baffled by new approach

Two families with children in the Purdy school district have recently expressed their concerns over its new approach to math instruction.

Erica Biloki said her fifth- and sixth-graders could not keep up with the latest instruction strategy. Susan Brown said she worked for two hours with her sophomore son and could not help him. The new program also has no textbook to explain the strategy to parents. Her son ended up turning in a blank piece of paper, and Brown said the teacher did not respond to his plea for help.

Superintendent Steven Chancellor pledged to spend time with the parents and explain what they needed to know.

"I know you called this 'new math,'" Chancellor said. "We're using the Missouri Learning Standards. The book we've got satisfies that. Truth is, we are not doing very well in math. Lowering the basketball hoop is not helping. What we had was doing kids a disservice."

Chancellor observed that the "new math" has moved away from basic forms in conceptual math, which are less familiar to parents. Instead of teaching through repetition, the strategy has widened the picture, but has not discarded the basic learning.

A typical question in second grade, concentrating on understanding centimeters, would ask: "The head of a grasshopper is 2 centimeters long. The rest of the grasshopper's body is 7 centimeters long. What is the total length of the grasshopper?" Another would show a picture, requiring students to measure it, and then approximate the length of the picture in centimeters, a two-step process.

"When the state finished testing last year, our teachers realized they had to make a change," Chancellor said. "They took it personally that they had not prepared kids."

In trying to find a different instructional approach, Purdy educators came across the Engage New York program, supported by federal stimulus funds that went to a specific region in New York State to develop a robust curriculum. In Missouri, Chancellor said, funds were distributed according to the Foundation Formula, leaving little significant impact anywhere.

"All of our teachers looked at it," Chancellor said. "All the Missouri Learning Standards are in there. We don't use all of it. Some of it is not as rigorous, so we retained our approach, or geared it toward the Common Core. Missouri does not have anything that's not in the Common Core. It's either a great lesson, and we use all of it, or we use a portion and supplement that."

The majority of grade levels at Purdy began using the Engage New York approach in August, with others starting later. Chancellor said teachers set milestones through the year, establishing a dateline for learning key concepts.

Chancellor acknowledged that the new approach has resulted in a few bumps in the road. He found those steps necessary in stepping out of the traditional comfort zone. The results, he noted, have proven positive. Teachers report students have hit the targeted trajectories as hoped.

Part of the problem for parents has been that the district has no math textbook. Parents say they have struggled without having a guide for instruction.

"Our concentration lately has been on parent resources," Chancellor said. "Since we're not using 100 percent of the program, how do we match that for adults to pick and choose with the student stuff. With the weaknesses we identified, we need to figure out how to plug the holes.

"Do we hold a parent night, or start a website? There's materials we can create. That leads to the question, what is the purpose of homework? That's the dialogue we're having: is homework to introduce new information, or if so, should we grade it, or is homework practice to check your understanding?"

Biloki said her children in younger grades successfully learned math and enjoyed programs like Monster Math and Rocket Math. She feared her children now would consider math a roadblock and not use it in real life. Chancellor responded that everything will make sense once the explanations are provided.

"We changed what we do in the classroom," Chancellor said. "We've done a lot there. Our teachers can tell you exactly what kids do and don't know. One on one, we can overwhelm parents with information. We can talk a lot about kids."

"The school has put out a lot of great people," said Jay Biloki. "Look at the town. We just want you to keep doing that."

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