Many middle school parents in the district are expressing concerns that their 8th grade children will not be ready for high school because the district's math curriculum doesn't meet the state standards for Algebra. Some of the students also agree.
The district uses Math Scapes in the 8th grade, a broad and conceptually-based program that integrates Algebra with Probability and Statistics, elementary Trigonometry and Geometry. The state recommends school districts teach standard Algebra in the 8th grade so that they will be prepared to take the first-round of the high school exit exam by the 10th grade. The exit exam covers math up to Algebra levels and passage of the test is required for a diploma.
Some parents worry their children will not even be ready to take Algebra by the 9th grade.
"He will not be ready to take Algebra next year as a 9th grader," said Annie Schlossman, a parent of an Abbott Middle School 8th grader.
"He will be forced to take A and B, the lowest levels of math."
Schlossman is not happy with Math Scapes, which she said is "too touchy-feely."
"It's not concrete and it doesn't have adequate explanations. You just don't feel that there is an adequate explanation for what you're doing. It's more of a general concept and it's not an exact truth. It's not pure math. It's like learning to play a saxophone without a saxophone - that's what this math program is like," she said.
Schlossman's son doesn't like his math class either. He said he gets bored in the classes because the teacher doesn't move on until all the students understand - the kids who get the concepts first just have to sit and bear the repetition.
"I don't like it because it's really slow and we keep doing the same thing over and over again. And the kids don't understand and the teacher doesn't know how to teach it either," Taki Shirayangi, an 8th grader at Abbott said.
The district implemented the Math Scapes program for the middle schools three years ago around the same time a similar model program called Math Investigations was introduced to the elementary grades. The district chose the program because they thought it would provide students with a deeper understanding of math concepts than the traditional more computational method. The district reviewed the program first before buying the instructional materials and implementing the program into the school.
"After a year we determined that the program provided a comprehensive approach to math that we needed to provide our students not only an opportunity in the basic math skills area, but also it is organized in such a way that it provided a deeper understanding of what goes on with the concepts and skills needed for higher math," said Superintendent Rick Damelio in an earlier interview with the Daily Journal.
The district used general funds toward the purchase of Math Scapes because the program is not state approved - there is a requirement by the state that most funding for instructional materials must be state approved. But the amount of general fund expenditures on the program was not much, according to Audrey Poppers, assistant superintendent of educational services. And, she said, the district's decision on which curriculum to choose should not be subject entirely to financial issues.
"It's a bit short sighted from my point of view. I would hope that the instructional content and the effectiveness of the materials should be the first consideration - whether that comes from the general fund or state funds," Poppers said.
But many parents are simply unhappy with the program, regardless of who is funding it. And they worry about their children building basic math skills that they need to do higher level math.
Another 8th grade Abbott student, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she only learned her multiplication tables in fourth and fifth grade because she was in a gifted class. Now she is in an Algebra class that students can enter only after they pass a test and get recommended from their 7th grade teacher. She said a lot of the students had trouble passing the entrance test into Algebra.
"I feel like the time that I could have spent learning was really wasted by using that book," she said about Math Scapes. "Once you use this book long enough and get used to going so slow you start to forget all this stuff before when you were learning at a pace much better for you. Among the brighter kids - the kids who will eventually go to college - they really don't like this program. They sit there twiddling their thumbs during class."
Since the start of the program, teachers have supplemented it with other curriculum materials, but doing so is up to the teacher's discretion and they do not get any clear direction from the district. District Boardmember Melody Lew would like to change that.
"I would like to see a good solid supplement to be provided to all teachers as soon as possible," Lew said. "It should be very thorough, and we should just have it laid out. Teachers really know the kids - yes you need some kind of cohesive thing that one recommends, like a main program, but if a teacher is really skilled in another way to get the same results, then I say go for it."
The district board will be discussing potential changes to the Math Scapes program at their next board meeting in early December in preparation for the new state list of approved math programs that comes out in January - the board may consider scraping Math Scapes altogether.