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Eden Prairie school board hears parents' views on reform math curriculum

Published Jan. 14, 2003 MATH14

By Kavita Kumar, Star Tribune

It was a hard room to work Monday night at an Eden Prairie school board meeting attended by 200 long-faced parents.

Many of them were there to criticize the district's new reform math program, which they blame for the 2002 drop in the school district's third-and fifth-grade math scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs).

Parents for Better Math presented the school board with a petition it said had 1,200 signatures and asked for a return to "a proven curriculum" with "a traditional learning approach." They called the current math curriculum "experimental and unproven."

But some parents praised the current math curriculum and said their children have made impressive gains with it.

In 1999, Eden Prairie schools adopted the new curriculum, which focuses more on problem-solving and mathematical reasoning than on computational skills. The move was one made by many metro-area school districts after some researchers called such a program a key to future success in math.

"It was one of the easiest curriculum decisions we ever made," said Larry Leebens, the district's director of teaching and learning. Similar programs have been implemented in Bloomington, Edina, Wayzata, St. Louis Park and Richfield, he said.

Eden Prairie has one of the most rigorous math curriculums in the state, Leebens said.

But in a district survey taken in November, 39.4 percent of parents said they did not support or lacked confidence in the district's math program.

The survey also concluded that students enjoy math and feel successful at it. Still, in 2002, the district's MCA math scores declined, though they remain above state averages.

The survey results surprised the school district and greatly concerned parents. Leebens said the district believes that the decline was caused by lack of test preparation to supplement the curriculum. Other school districts whose students scored better on the math MCA have such preparation, he said.

He presented the school board with recommendations from a district math committee that include giving students two preparation tests before the real test, as well as test-taking tips and reviewing concepts. He also recommended supplementing the reform curriculum with more computational skill development.

Some parents who spoke Monday night pleaded with the district to keep the new curriculum.

"The world is changing," parent Cheryl Larson said. "Our kids will live in a time that we will not be able to anticipate.

"The reform curriculum was implemented because there is a need for it," she said. "Parents should embrace it as the wave of the future. It's got to be better than the drill-and-kill that assumed we would be spending our adult lives doing long division."

Kimberly Ewen, an Eden Prairie mother and teacher in the Minnetonka district, said she supplements her teaching with assignments from the reform curriculum and believes that is responsible for Minnetonka's greater success on math test scores.

She credited the new approach for helping motivate her own son, formerly an average math student who became excited about the discoveries he made in math under the new method.

Other parents assailed the new curriculum.

"Our kids aren't getting it," parent Michael O'Leary said.

Cathy Jacobs said her fifth-grader doesn't know her multiplication tables.

"We've spent too much time with 'Investigations' [the name of one of the new math texts] and not enough on memorizing facts," she said. "Please don't gamble with our children any longer."

-- Kavita Kumar is at kkumar@startribune.com.

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