Madison School District seeks input on proposed math changes

Andy Hall:

A series of potentially controversial proposals will be outlined next week as residents are invited to help shape how math is taught in the Madison School District.
Among the recommendations from a task force that recently completed a one-year study:
• Switch to full-time math teachers for all students in grades five through eight.
• The math task force’s executive summary and full report
• Substantially boost the training of math teachers.
• Seriously consider selecting a single textbook for each grade level or course in the district, rather than having a variety of textbooks used in schools across the district.
The task force was created in 2006 by the Madison School Board to independently review the district’s math programs and seek ways to improve students’ performance.

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14 thoughts on “Madison School District seeks input on proposed math changes”

  1. This should be interesting. I’m glad to see that this task force’s report is getting some feedback from the public. A big thank you to everyone who took the time to serve on this task force. I know from experience that it can be a VERY trying process.

  2. The report from the task force can be a challenging read, but here are some first thoughts after looking through the document:
    1) We needed a task force to tell us that our students would be better served by having math teachers that had been trained as “math specialists?”
    2) After reviewing the literature on different curricula, the committee concludes that no one curricula best serves all groups of students, so why would the district select only one curriculum to be used for all students in the district?
    3) One of the stated rationales for a singular curriculum is the issue of student mobility. However, the data provided in the report do not suggest that there is much mobility across our four high schools. The only data is from Memorial and it shows that less than 6% of 10th graders and less than 3% of 11th and 12th graders at Memorial were at one of the district’s other high schools the previous year. For juniors and seniors, a larger percentage of students had been enrolled in schools outside of the Madison district the prior year than had been at East, West or La Follette. A singular curriculum across the district won’t have any benefit for those students.
    4) It was sobering to read the conclusion from the committee’s review of the literature that there is little evidence for the superiority of any “reform” or commercial curricula. Once you control for variables like teacher training, parental education, SES, race and ethnicity the differences wash out.

  3. I haven’t read the report yet, but Jeff could you comment further on your points 2) and 3)?
    Is there really a process in place in our district where an incoming class is first evaluated, then determined to belong to certain group, and finally the best curriculum for that group is chosen?
    For example, if the 2009/2010 9th graders at East are different than the corresponding 9th graders at West, who is it that formally makes this judgement, documents the findings, and then picks the curriculum?

  4. Matt,
    There is no process in place whereby students are evaluated and then directed towards a particular curriculum. The Task Force in their review of 3 different meta-analyses, concluded that there was some evidence to suggest that “reform” curricula are most effective with low-income and minority students. There was also evidence to suggest that these “reform” curricula were less successful in improving the performance of students who already have high levels of math ability. The Task Force also noted that “reform” curricula, like Connected Math, fall short when it comes to teaching basic math skills such as computation and algebraic manipulation.
    Regarding point 3 about student mobility. The full report includes 2007 student data from Memorial High School indicating the prior year’s school for each class of current students. So while 83% of Memorial’s freshman class come from the 3 feeder middle schools (Toki, Jefferson and Spring Harbor), 7% of Memorial’s freshman come from a private middle school, another state or another WI school district. Likewise for students who were juniors in 2007, 85% were enrolled the year before at Memorial, less than 3% had been enrolled at West, East or La Follette, and 5% came from another state or Wisconsin school district.

  5. Does anyone know if a third session has been scheduled for the UW math folks who are apparently out of town at a conference this week?
    Also, will these sessions be videotaped?
    Finally, for me one of the most sobering things made clear by the report — and stated clearly by its authors multiple times — is how little rigorous research has been done in this area.

  6. I’m not sure why anyone would care about mobility issues at the high school level. It’s the elementary level (and less so but still an issue at middle school level) that’s so crucial, and there is tremendous mobility in some elementary schools. By the time you get to high school, your math curriculum is pretty much tracked.

  7. Laurie-
    We are still working on setting up a time with the UW Math Department. I also inquired about videotaping and am waiting to hear back.

  8. David,
    The only mobility data that is included in the Task Force’s report is the data from Memorial, so I can’t comment on the data from any other school in the district.

  9. Brian, That’s good to hear. (Someone told me yesterday that the meeting at Cherokee next week was going to function in that way, or implied as much.) Please keep us posted. Thanks.

  10. Thank you to the Task Force for the work that they have done. I had wanted to send my kids to MMSD schools, as they had a great reputation. My kids have been in the District for more than 10 years. We’ve encountered some great teachers, many mediocre and an unacceptable number of awful teachers.
    Unfortunately our math teachers have been mostly the awful ones. It is easier to critique these teachers, as math is a more concrete, tangible subject. I feel that there are changes to be made in the curriculum. The idea of using one book may be a good idea. However, the teachers need to be on “the same page.” No pun intended. Not only isn’t the material taught the same in each of our schools, it varies within each of the schools. Our experience has been a luck of the draw. Some years we had good teachers, more often not. The Task Force addressed teacher training and knowledge, which is crucial. My kids have had teachers that didn’t know the material, themselves. They have had many classes where it became obvious that the teacher couldn’t teach. Some teachers have told my children’s classes that they could teach themselves! Some have made an effort, but stood before the class unable to solve a problem. In some cases, a student could offer help. This hasn’t been a one time occurrence. Teachers have to know the material.
    We are able to teach our kids, fortunately. It is rather demoralizing for a student to sit in their class knowing that they will have to learn the material that night. The Report focuses on grades 5-8. While those years are crucial, grades 9-12 are equally important. I’ve felt that my children’s teachers have been apathetic. This attitude exist, but it may be more lack of knowledge than apathy.

  11. That’s weird that they would cite mobility issues and only reference one high school. I’ll ask about that for sure. The north side has been dealing with mobility as it relates to academics for a decade or more.

  12. My kids attend or have attended the Madison public schools. We have been very happy with the high school math teachers at Memorial. Middle school was more of a mixed bag with math teachers. Also, some kids might do well with the reform curricula but my kids seemed to prefer traditional math. Memorial offers traditional math in its accelerated courses.

  13. David, If I understood Brian Sniff correctly tonight, most of the District’s mobility data — or at least the “in and out” data on the District website — is very muddy, in that you cannot tell where students have come from (i.e., another MMSD school … or not) or where they have gone to. He said they are intending to do for the other high schools what they did for Memorial (which probably has somewhat less mobility than other MMSD schools). It wasn’t clear from his comments if they intend — or are able — to get as clean and clear a picture of the magnitude of the within-District mobility problem at our middle and elementary schools.

  14. Since I was on the task force, I just want to clarify that the mobility issue was not a major topic of discussion, but came about mostly in reference to elementary schools because there isn’t a single curriculum used across the district and there is a pattern of mobility among low income areas of the city (e.g. Northport/Packers, Allied Drive, Darbo-Worthington). The biggest benefit in having a single curriculum across elementary schools clearly would be for staff development purposes to improve the quality of math instruction, but a secondary benefit would be to better serve the more mobile population of low-income students who tend to migrate around city schools. Also, it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me that the district essentially mandated a middle school curriculum, but wasn’t requiring anything in particular for elementary school, or high school. A coordinated K-12 curriculum should benefit all students as they move through elementary, middle school, and high school math and is currently lacking in MMSD. My understanding is that there have been standards developed by the Teaching and Learning staff downtown for K-12 math, but there isn’t a coordinated approach to teaching them via any particular curriculum, except for Connected Math in middle school.

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