Update on the Middle School Mathematics Review

October 17, 1999
[The following are two documents: (1) a memorandum dated October 13 from Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, to the Board of Education, transmitting the recommendations of a five-member external committee reviewing the middle school mathematics program; and (2) the recommendations of the external committee, dated October 11.]



To: Members of the Board of Education

From: Jerry D. Weast, Superintendent of Schools

Subject: Update on the Middle School Mathematics Review

The external committee assigned to review the recent issues and concerns raised in the community over the middle school mathematics program has completed its examination and provided recommendations for further action. The five-member committee was comprised of leading experts in their fields from the University of Maryland, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Carnegie Institute of Washington, the National Institutes of Health, and Howard University.

The committee's recommendations [see below] deserve serious consideration as we move forward in examining the curriculum for the middle school mathematics program and our instructional program at the classroom level. Clearly, there are elements of these recommendations that will be important in our efforts this year to improve academic achievement, accelerate instruction, and eliminate the gap in student performance.

I have asked staff to review the recommendations and provide me with their advice and counsel on the next steps in this process. I will keep you informed.


Monday, October 11, 1999

Dr. Jerry D. Weast

Superintendent of Schools

Montgomery County Public School

850 Hungerford Drive

Rockville, MD 20850

Dear Dr. Weast:

The ad hoc committee on middle school mathematics met with MCPS staff on Wednesday, September 29, 1999. We wish to begin with the caveat that this is a very complicated issue, at both a technical and political level, and our group simply did not have sufficient time or resources to produce a definitive report. In addition, we have some concern, expressed in our recommendation #4 that we are not even the correct group to make final recommendations to you. Nevertheless, we hope that this report will be useful to you as to choose a course of action that will lead to the best possible mathematics learning for all Montgomery County students.

Recommendation #1: Do not abandon attempts to reform and improve the mathematics and science curriculum.

We would like to commend MCPS for investigating ways to improve the performance of its mathematics students. Its long history of innovation in math and science instruction has given the MCPS a national reputation of which it can be proud. Today's student is most certainly benefiting from the hard work done in the past.

However, the data indicate that not all schools, nor all groups of students, within Montgomery County are succeeding at mathematics. In addition, the best available data from the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) indicate that U.S. students lag behind in international comparisons of math skills. The same holds true even when the comparison is between U.S. students and international students enrolled in advanced math courses.

Good mathematics and science instruction can effectively teach the high level analytical and verbal reasoning skills that are being so richly rewarded in the job marketplace. As a nation we need to decide whether to prepare our children to capture large numbers of these high-skill, high wage jobs for themselves. The alternative, exporting these jobs to better educated workforces around the world leaving relatively low-skill, low wage jobs for our own children, is not an attractive one.

Recommendation #2: Proceed with a careful implementation of new mathematics curriculum designed to learn about its effectivness.

Maintaining the status quo with respect to the mathematics curriculum is not a very satisfactory option. The traditional curriculum is, perhaps, the only for which we have adequate research data. These data document its failure to make our students competitive with those of other nations and its inability to serve various racial and ethnic groups within the county.

There are good reasons to select the curricula that MCPS proposes to use in its middle school program. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project 2061 has rated each of these curricula very highly. This recommendation is particularly compelling because of the well-documented set of research-based instructional criteria that AAAS Project 2061 has published and which it uses to compare various curricula.

There are also those who express concerns over the new curricula. The concern expressed by some groups is difficult to evaluate critically because of the lack of published review criteria. However, there are some criticisms, such as those of Professors Milgram, Bishop and Askey that must be taken more seriously and addressed. Nevertheless, these critiques are not sufficient by themselves to warrant eliminating these curricula from consideration.

Therefore, we recommend careful implementation the new curricula in a manner that will allow MCPS, and parents, to learn about their effectiveness. It will take a number of years to determine whether any of these curricula will perform better than the existing MCPS curricula. It was a matter of concern to us that three new curricula are being introduced simultaneously. MCPS should carefully review its resources to be certain that this will not exceed its capacity to train the teachers on the new curricula and to conduct an evaluation of their effectiveness.

Recommendation #3: Give parents the option to place their children into the traditional mathematics courses.

We recommend that parents be allowed to opt out of the new curricula for their students in each school where it is introduced. Parents in the schools where the new curricula are going to be introduced should be given enough information to be able to offer "informed consent." Nobody knows which of the proposed curricula will eventually turn out to be the most successfulor whether, in fact, any of them will improve upon performance of the existing curricula. If kept fully informed, parents will have the information they need to be responsibly involved in their children's education.

Recommendation #4: Work to involve parents more closely in mathematics and science education reform efforts.

We are concerned because it does not appear that parents were adequately informed and involved in the selection process for new mathematics curricula. We were particularly moved by the letter of one parent who is obviously highly committed to MCPS and improving education for all of it students. This individual has clearly invested a great deal of time learning about the new mathematics curricula and, if anything, seems to favor their implementation. However, what is equally clear is the frustration felt with "the process" and the ability to extract information from "the system."

Change is almost always resisted. To surrender to this natural human tendency would ensure that the curriculum could never improve. But change is resisted much more strongly when people believe that it is being forced on them and that they have no voice the matter. We would like to suggest that MCPS view curriculum improvement as an educational problema problem in public education.

MCPS has an interested audience in parents and it is essential to create a curriculum improvement process that invites parents in as partners. MCPS should explicitly describe its rationale for curriculum improvement, the proposed changes, and the plan for assessing the effectiveness of those changes. Parents should then be given a mechanism to obtain additional information, get any of their questions answered, respond to the proposals, and participate in the ultimate decision process. A key element in this new process is time. Parents need time to investigate and make decisions concerning any proposals that are made and, in fact, a number of the letters we reviewed complained about the lack of time parents were given to learn about the new curricula.

We recommend that MCPS first look to its existing groups (the MCCPTA, Council on Instruction, Curriculum Committee, etc.) as a way to increase parental involvement in the curriculum improvement process. Consider various means of communicating with parents including the use of Web sites to keep parents informed. Consider ways to teach parents about the complex process of curriculum improvement. (One state mathematics supervisor told us that opposition to the new mathematics curriculum all but disappeared after parents were invited to an event that demonstrated the new and old ways of teaching a single mathematical concept.)

We are confident that together the parents and teachers of Montgomery County will overcome any obstacle in the way of providing their students with a constantly improving educational system.

Dr. Carlos Berenstein

University of Maryland

Dr. John Cahn

National Institute of Standards and Technology

Dr. Ines Cifuentes

Carnegie Institute of Washington

Dr. Bruce A. Fuchs

National Institutes of Health

Dr. Nathaniel Woodrick

Howard University

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