2005-03-31 / Community

Everyday Math has its proponents

Part two of two
By Michelle Knight

Everyday Math
has its proponents
By Michelle Knight

RANDY THOMSON Acorn Newspapers  POSTER SAYS IT ALL-Concerned parents Richard Zisko and Joanne Cobasko, both accountants, are upset over Conejo Valley Unified School District's choice of teaching "Everyday Math" instead of a conventional math program. Cobasko  has taken her son out of public school and enrolled him in private school.RANDY THOMSON Acorn Newspapers POSTER SAYS IT ALL-Concerned parents Richard Zisko and Joanne Cobasko, both accountants, are upset over Conejo Valley Unified School District's choice of teaching "Everyday Math" instead of a conventional math program. Cobasko has taken her son out of public school and enrolled him in private school.

Part two of two

Planted firmly on the opposite side of the math war from the detractors of whole math are its proponents––mostly educators. They say such programs as Everyday Mathematics raise the eyebrows and sometimes the ire of parents simply because they don’t use the traditional methods parents are accustomed to.

Instead of fostering a competitive environment and teaching students through logical deduction, Everyday Mathematics uses a collaborative milieu and allows students to draw their own conclusions after seeing recurring math patterns. Teachers facilitate the process instead of teaching it, and such techniques, they say, are more in step with the way women and minorities learn.

"Everyday Math requires all the standard things every math program does and more," said Yvonne Lux, one of the directors of a state program at California Lutheran University and Cal State Channel Islands that focuses on how educators can best teach math.

Lux, a former assistant superintendent of Poway Unified School District in the San Diego area, was involved in the district’s review of EM in the late 1990s. The program has been taught there since 1998.

"I was very impressed with Everyday Math," she said.

Lux is also director of continuing and professional education at Cal Lutheran. She refuted the statement of Stanford University math professor R. James Milgram that only math majors can effectively teach EM. She said the program does require, however, a high level of teacher commitment, characteristic of the district’s teachers.

Lux also discounted Milgram’s criticism that teachers here aren’t teaching EM correctly in the classrooms. In addition having personally observed how the program is taught, Lux has two grandchildren who attend school in the district and love Everyday Math.

With EM, children may need math tutoring, Lux said, but the same could be said of other school subjects.

She doesn’t understand why critics such as Milgram and David Klein, a math professor at Cal State Northridge, oppose Everyday Math. "If students are achieving," she said, "it seems you’ve got something really good going on."

Conejo Valley Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Richard Simpson dismissed as "radical" Klein’s claim that programs such as EM have contributed to the need for universities to teach freshmen basic math skills. He said Everyday Math is relatively new and couldn’t be responsible for the math level of recent college enrollees. He also noted that the Cal State system lowered admission standards about 10 years ago, which may account for remedial math classes.

Of Milgram’s claim that Conejo Valley teachers aren’t qualified to teach EM, Simpson said, "He wouldn’t have any idea (making a generalization from a video) if our teachers are qualified or not to teach it. Our teachers are very qualified."

And as for EM not teaching long division, Martha Mutz, director of curriculum for CVUSD, said the program does teach it, but through a series of drills that may not make it as immediately identifiable.

Besides, she said, Everyday Mathematics has proven itself in the district. For example, before starting the program, third-graders in math averaged 3.5 on a scale of 5. After the first year of EM, Mutz said their performance was up to 3.8, the second year, 4.1.

Periodically, the state requires school districts to evaluate different courses, and in 2001 a committee of 27 teachers, most from elementary schools, was formed for the task.

Based on input from their fellow teachers, the committee created a list of the criteria they expected the programs to meet. Teachers felt students were competent enough in math computation but weak in thinking in mathematical terms. They evaluated five math programs; Everyday Math was among them but was the only one not approved by the state.

During the pilot year of 2001-02, each teacher from the committee taught a different math program during the semester. Afterward, the committee met with the publishers and questioned them thoroughly about their programs. Armed with personal experience with the programs, the teachers could ask incisive questions.

Committee teachers then shared with one another the experiences they had with the programs.

"When we got to Everyday Math," Mutz said, "it was one success story after another. The program has helped the district’s students to ‘think mathematically.’"

After narrowing down the math programs to just a couple of choices, Mutz said most of the district’s schools approved of adopting EM. The committee then asked each school site council for approval, and all but one gave it, she said.

Despite its critics, Everyday Mathematics has 13 years of university research behind it while the other programs had only one or two, Mutz said. Moreover, the state didn’t approve EM because it felt teachers would need a tremendous amount of supplemental training to teach it. But nearly all CVUSD teachers, unlike those in many districts, have state teaching credentials. And, she said, the district has provided teachers with additional training in EM, something the state required when granting the waiver.

Nonetheless, Jo Anne Cobasko, a parent of an Aspen Elementary School student and an accountant who once owned her own firm, isn’t impressed by the district’s figures. She said if math scores are higher, it’s probably because students are getting outside help. Two University of Tennessee professors said the use of private tutoring services is a likely outcome when districts teach math using EM.

Last October, after her son spent less than two months at Aspen Elementary, she and her husband enrolled him in private school

Although Richard Zisko, whose child attends Aspen Elementary, said his daughter is staying put for now, he’s concerned about what will happen to her later on when she transitions into classes that use more traditional methods. She may become soured on math, and by then valuable time will have been lost, he said.

"I’m concerned seeing all of the articles," Zisko said. "Why not use the professors’ knowledge and a book that’s tested high in the things (children are) learning."

In addition to appealing to the school board to offer parents a state-approved math program as an alternative to EM, Cobasko and Zisko recently launched Save Our Children from Mediocre Math to advocate their position. They established a website at http://socmm.home.att.net to act as a clearinghouse of information on EM for parents. They have links to reviews and reports from mathematicians who criticize EM’s deficiencies.

Within the next few weeks Mutz is expected to present data to the board of education on how the district’s students have been performing since using EM.

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