New method to the math in public schools

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story exploring new methods of teaching math in public schools on Kaua‘i.

Kaua‘i regular public schools are changing the way math is taught.

“Parents complain it’s not the way they were taught,” said Melissa Speetjens. “They say that math has changed so much, and it has.”

Speetjens is the current acting vice principal at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. She is a former math teacher and school-level resources teacher for math and science. She has retained the teacher leader role in the Hawaii Networked Learning Communities that develop inquiry-based math and science lessons with an emphasis on the use of technology.

Math benchmark scores are lower (28 percent proficient) than reading benchmark scores (44 percent proficient) on the Hawaii State Assessment. Speetjens said she thinks the discrepancy is because there has been a stronger focus on reading and literacy in general, especially in elementary schools.

That is changing with the No Child Left Behind Act that calls for 100 percent proficiency by 2014 and with President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative.

“The ‘math wars’ pitting conceptual math advocates against computational math advocates have given rise to more math educators believing that a balance of both is needed,” Speetjens said.

Computation is like basic language skills equal to grammar. Concepts are equal to comprehension, Speetjens said.

“In order to learn concepts in math, students need to do, say, and write,” Speetjens said. Students need to do and work it first, then talk about it in cooperative learning groups, and then write it. Now, teachers are taking a much more hands-on approach as opposed to giving students worksheets torn from perforated workbooks, Speetjens said.

Because of state content and performance standards across all grade levels, lower grade level teachers are realizing, for example, that students can get introduced to algebra through patterns even in kindergarten, Speetjens said.

“The Hawaii State Assessment (a standards-based summative assessment) has opened up all the branches of math and made it much more applicable to every grade level,” Speetjens said.

When students are allowed to use calculators next year, the focus will be on seeing if students can understand the problem and what they are trying to solve, Speetjens said.

The Reinventing Education Act of 2004 appropriated $2.5 million for math textbooks and other math learning materials. According to a Department of Education publication, the one-time appropriation was awarded to schools that were addressing the alignment of a standards-based K-12 curriculum.

The DOE also recommended a list of math textbooks that were aligned with state standards.

The recommended textbooks were “reform textbooks,” Speetjens said. Instead of the traditional math textbooks with single-focus chapters, the reform textbooks were organized into modules and were problem-based or inquiry-based.

Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School was one of 78 schools statewide to receive the Act 51 grant money for math texts. According to Speetjens, the math textbooks they purchased, Thematics, have a mixture of traditional problem sets of about 20 computational problems to solve and inquiries in math. The modules start with an investigation, with the concepts being built coming from the investigations. Within one module, usually two or three out of the five math strands are interwoven. The five strands are geometry, patterns and functions (algebra), measurement, numbers in operation, data analysis and probability.

To demonstrate how strands are interwoven, Speetjens used a tennis ball bounce activity as an example. Students could collect data on it, she said. They could time it and figure a pattern of what happens over time. They could graph it and get the slope of the line to show that people get more tired as they bounce the ball over time.

Because most modules begin with some kind of inquiry started in class, parents have a difficult time helping their children with math homework, Speetjens said. She suggested that parents ask big questions like, “What did you learn?” or “How would that help you answer the question?”

• Look for Part 2 in tomorrow’s edition of The Garden Island.

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