A work in progress
October 31, 2011
The Oct. 21 Aspen Times article, “Not all math scores adding up,” mentioned both accomplishments and shortcomings. There were also some small inaccuracies that I feel the need to correct, in the interest of getting the right information to the community.
The article mentioned recent changes to curriculum and philosophy as some of the factors contributing to the low performance of students in certain areas. Explaining changes to the curriculum and philosophy in grades six through 12 requires a bit more space that the format of this type of letter affords, but I can share a brief summary as well as a correction to the article.
First, here is the correction: The implementation of updated curriculum and philosophy started this school year, so this had little or no effect on the performance of students last year. Indeed, these updates and the continued improvement of what we offer students in our schools are informed by the ongoing trends (some of them good, some of them alarmingly not good) that the article mentions. We are aware of the fact that we have the opportunity to have an exemplary mathematics program for students in Aspen, and there are people in both the middle and high schools working to improve student learning and move in that direction.
Second, “changes to the math curriculum” and “shift in philosophy” might sound a bit unclear or dismissive, even weird. I’ll take a shot at explaining this concisely, but anyone who wants more details should consider contacting me, a math teacher and department head at the high school; Sarah Beesley, a teacher and the leader of the curriculum team in the middle school; or Julia Roark, the district’s assistant superintendent. Alternatively, consult the district’s “Standards and Curriculum” web page.
In short, as both the nation and our state updated the standards for mathematics, we reviewed our curriculum so that we could work toward alignment with new content standards, and purchased resources that would support teachers and students in meeting these standards. Also, the new standards incorporate suggestions from educational researchers and organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) to include process standards that address the richness of the tasks in which students engage. Basically, we needed to return value to mathematical and critical thinking skills, balancing this with (and connecting it to) procedural fluency. (On a related note, if you analyze released items on the CSAP, you’ll note the need for problem-solving skills more than fact memorization.)
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Finally, we decided internally that we wanted all students to be able to learn rich, engaging, challenging, and even beautiful mathematics on an annual basis, not giving up on students as “non-math” people, and always striving for deep understanding rather than short-lived memorization. This is not crazy or revolutionary; it’s what public math education should be when delivered by experts familiar with both mathematics and what works in education.
If we continue to work in this direction, test scores should follow, but it is important to remember that test scores are not the goal any more than a different textbook is the answer. The goal is to help all students learn rich and meaningful mathematics. Curriculum, resources, great teaching, and supportive families help achieve that goal, and tests help to measure how well we have done.
I like teaching mathematics in this community, and am clearly excited to talk about it. Feel free to contact me if you want to chat.
Aspen High School