Core math program a bust, parents say

Amanda Rounsville was perplexed when she tested into remedial math at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire last year. The former Northwestern High School student got A's in her high school "Core Plus" math classes and a "B" in calculus.

Amanda Rounsville was perplexed when she tested into remedial math at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire last year. The former Northwestern High School student got A's in her high school "Core Plus" math classes and a "B" in calculus.

"But I didn't have basic algebra skills," she said.

She had to pay a few hundred dollars for a semester-long class that didn't count toward graduation credits. Friends from other schools thought it strange she hadn't had regular algebra and geometry classes.

"It kind of stinks to have to pay for a course when my high school should be preparing us for the classes we're going to take in college," the 19-year-old Poplar resident said.

Rounsville illustrates one reason for parental concern regarding Northwestern's current math program, and the impetus for a petition signed by more than 540 people asking for a traditional math option at the high school. A group is bringing the petition to the school board Monday. At that session, the curriculum committee will also recommend using only its current program. The district claims it's teaching to state standards, and the difference is in the delivery method, not the curriculum itself, which has been implemented in stages since 2000.


Traditional vs. reform math

Core Plus, the version of reform math used at Northwestern High School, is divided into four levels. A college prep math class and calculus are also offered. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, probability and statistics, and discrete math and functions are taught in Core Plus, at levels that build into each other, said Greg Blair, curriculum director. Students work together in groups of four.

The math focuses heavily on thinking and problem solving, and its critics say it's light on number manipulation and computation.

Traditional math is what most people born before 1980 had in high school: A full year each of algebra, geometry, advanced algebra or trigonometry.

Concerns about reform math

Poplar resident Susan Johnson, who started the petition, majored in math in college. Her son Eric, whom she says is a perfectionist, has struggled with the Core Plus curriculum. He's only succeeding because she tutors him privately, she said.

She's not criticizing the teachers, but the way math is taught: students aren't allowed to ask questions because they are supposed to be teaching each other, she said.

"They're supposed to dig deeper into other students in the group," she said. "Why would my 14-year-old have the ability to teach more than a trained teacher?"


Johnson is also concerned exceptional students are slowed by students who don't yet grasp concepts, and there are too many word problems and not enough typical math problems.

Cindy Knapp's son is concerned he's not getting the math skills he should in high school.

"Core does not teach math," said Knapp, who is a speech and language therapist with the Maple School District. "It teaches problem-solving and that's wonderful ... but kids need to be able to use math concepts ... they don't have to rely on a calculator for."

Luann Teige's son and daughter both tested into remedial college math after fairing well in Core Plus classes. Her daughter, whose ACT math score reflected a lack of basic algebra knowledge, appealed her university's decision and avoided the class, but her son appealed and lost.

"People at the university level don't care about core math -- they have no idea what it is," she said.

Teige hopes to arrange for her two younger children to take algebra and geometry at Superior High School or Wisconsin Indianhead Technical University.

Teachers hear questions, and throw them back to the students, said Reilly O'Halloran, an NHS parent and director of student support services at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

"If you have nothing but weak people in your group and are weak yourself, you don't have a leg to stand on," he said.


O'Halloran is in charge of placement testing at UWS for incoming students. Five sections of remedial math were offered in 1998. "I now offer 10," he said.

Core Plus math is a good thought process system, but it isn't a good math system, he said. District administrators are afraid poor math scores will lead to No Child Left Behind problems, he added, and think Core Plus is the answer.

"Teach," he said. "That's how you're going to improve your test scores."

Teaching for understanding

The district began looking at math reform in 1998 after receiving a string of low test scores, and has since risen through the ranks, well above state average. State testing ends in 10th grade, so students have at least one Core Plus class when they are tested. But there is no way to hold students accountable after 10th grade since only three math credits are needed to graduate.

"Some students probably won't take a math class senior year," said Gregg Lundberg, superintendent. "That's a whole year off before college."

The administration may make a recommendation to the board requiring an additional math credit to graduate in 2007-08, in hopes of raising skill levels.

As for the number of students placing into remedial classes, Lundberg said he hasn't seen evidence showing which students came from traditional or reform math backgrounds.


In 2004, 45 percent of incoming freshman at UWS needed remedial math. But placement depends on each university's criteria, Blair said.

One complaint was the college prep course was only offered to seniors when most students take the ACT test in their junior year.

"It was probably a mistake that we offered it just for seniors," Blair said. This year it will open up to 11th-graders.

Teaching two different math philosophies in a district of 1,450 students would be cost-prohibitive, Lundberg said. Supplies, space, staff and books would add up.

And he's heard some schools with that system, "at some point you see the disillusion of the other track," he said.

Teachers are working to pull both tracks together and incorporate more traditional algebraic applications into Core Plus, especially as students begin math at the high school.

Lundberg said students are allowed to ask questions, but a teacher may ask a question in return to get the student to think more deeply.

"We're teaching for understanding, not regurgitation," Blair said.


Students aren't grouped by ability.

"You find that in any public school where we have to educate the masses," he said. "Anybody can learn from each other in some way shape or form."

Part of the math problem is UW System and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction "aren't on the same page in terms of what standards are," Lundberg said. "It's not just a Maple issue. They need to reach some kind of agreement on expectations."

Because the curriculum is still relatively new, Lundberg doesn't have enough data to say the program is doing everything they planned. But, "if for any reason we thought that this wasn't viable for our students here, we'd be the first ones to say we have to do something different," he said.

A second petition circulated asked for formal public notice about the districtwide implementation of two new elementary and middle school math programs piloted in some classes last year. Informational meetings about the programs will be held in September, Blair said.

Ashland's experience

Ashland School District will offer both traditional and Core Plus math this year after an intense struggle within the community. Core Plus had been the only offering for five years, and students began complaining about remedial placement in college.

Carl Smith was president of the board at the time and said the community agonized over the math program. An April school board election added two "pro-dual track" members. The measure was voted in.


"I think 73 percent signed up for traditional math coming into the freshman classes next year," Smith said.

Test scores were good in Ashland, "but it was this college thing that really upset the community," he said. "Honor students ... said they didn't have a clue what was going on at the college level."

Rounsville took two math classes her freshman year of college and plans to take pre-calculus next year. "And in college, there is no group work," she said. "It's repetitive, problem after problem. Why change something that works for everyone else?"

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