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New Math Program to Deepen 'Mile Wide' Learning

Bernards math supervisor outlines plans for changes in the teaching of math being mandated in N.J., and nationwide.

This is just the first year of a schoolwide changes in math teaching that over the next few years will change the way math is taught in grades K-12, district math supervisor Marian Palumbo said in a report to the Board of Education.

The new program, being launched this school year in kindergarten through grade 2, will be expanded each year, as required by the state, Palumbo said. It will be introduced in stages at different grade levels, she said.

The changes in the way that math will be taught are mandated by the state, as part of a nationwide initiative — one that actually looks to international math programs deemed most successful, Palumbo told the school board last week.

The rewritten guidelines for what students will be learning are in response to criticism that math has been taught to American students in a way that is "a mile wide, and an inch deep," Palumbo said.

She said studies showed that the most effective methods for teaching math were being conducted in schools in Singapore and Japan. Palumbo said those students learn the subject in-depth, all at once, until students supposedly are solid in their knowledge of that aspect of mathematics, she said.

Under the the new U.S. math program, a student would move on once one aspect of math has been taught in depth, and then will not return to that concept unless it is as a foundation for a further concept, Palumbo said.

That is in contrast to the current method of teaching math in Bernards schools, and elsewhere, in which students are given some instruction in one area of math, and then return at a later point in the curriculum for further reinforcement. That method has drawn criticism in many school districts for supposedly leaving students without a firm understanding of many concepts.

"We are expected to teach [students] for a deep and complete understanding," Palumbo said during a Power Point presentation.

Number concepts, numerical computations and geometry would be given more emphasis in the new program, Palumbo told the board. Algebra, now introduced in Bernards schools in the lower elementary grades, will be delayed until higher grade levels, she said.

A board member asked if that meant that math had been taught the wrong way in previous years.

In response, Palumbo said she has observed methods of teaching math are re-examined about every ten years, and often are revised and updated. Taking the long view, she said that she believes each method has advantages and disadvantages.

Looking at the detailed instructions for teaching methods in this latest program, Palumbo observed, "I think they're hard for teachers to read, I think think they're hard for parents to read — heck, sometimes they're hard for me to read."

She said the district already has rewritten the math curriculum for K-2 classes in all elementary schools. She said the school system is not receiving any funding to implement the new math program, answering a question posted by School Board President Susan Carlsson.

Palumbo also said that although the new program appears to be focused more on the basics, it will require more intense study of the subject than was typical in previous decades. Other specific orders are that fractions no longer be introduced using bar graphs to help students understand how they work.

Palumbo said there will be more focus on such areas as making sure that students actually hand in homework that is correct, rather than just getting it finished. The updated program is designed to follow a teaching "road map with fewer, clearer and higher standards," Palumbo said.

The changes in the math program will be mirrored in changes in annual state standardized tests, which may could even be suspended for one year while the new program is kicking in at different grade levels and the test is being revised, Palumbo said. This year's state standardized tests in K-2 will recognize the changes in the new statewide math program, Palumbo said.

The state now is working on revising its standardized tests for the changes in the math program due to go into effect in grades 3 to 5 and the high school in 2012-13, she said.

Although there will be no choice but to cover what is taught in Bernards classrooms, especially in the lower grades, the new program allows some more flexibility in how math courses are presented at Palumbo said.

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