By Callie Buys
Alpine School District fourth-grade students study data and fractions in a math class unit called “Three out of four like spaghetti.” Third graders discover geometry in the “Turtle paths” unit.
These math units, segments of the “Investigations in Number, Data and Space” curriculum, aim to teach elementary school students how to solve math problems rather than to simply memorize answers.
But debate over the effectiveness of the Investigations program and its junior high school counterpart, “Connected Mathematics,” has divided Utah County”s largest school district.
Proponents say the program helps students learn how and why math works and motivates them to study mathematics.
Opponents, who voiced their concerns to district leaders at recent school board meetings, say the program lacks a background in basic mathematical skills.
Alpine School District piloted Investigations at Foothill Elementary School three years ago. Since then, 28 of the 39 Alpine elementary schools and five junior high schools have started using the new programs, according to Alpine math specialist Scott Hendrickson, a board member of the Utah Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
The curriculum encourages students to experiment to find their own methods to reach a correct solution, rather than relying solely on formulas provided by a teacher.
“The idea behind Investigations is that students will better understand concepts if they figure them out on their own,” said Michael Pratt, principal of Aspen Elementary School in Orem. “That may or may not be true, depending on the individual student, because kids learn differently.”
Both sides of the debate cite education trends, programs in other states and national research to back their opinions. One assistant professor in Brigham Young University”s elementary education department uses Investigations in her own research.
Five years ago, Stephanie Smith started teaching the Investigations curriculum to a group of Provo elementary first-grade students. The students, now in the fifth grade, perform better in math than a control group of children learning traditional math in a similar school, Smith said.
“They reason about numbers in such incredible ways that it just floors adults,” Smith said. “They understand mathematics at a much greater depth than they (adults) ever did.”
Smith”s project illustrates teaching techniques for her BYU elementary education students. While the elementary education department does not promote a specific curriculum, students study standards-based instruction similar to the Investigations and Connections programs, Smith said.
“More than just a curriculum, this is a change in philosophy in how children learn mathematics,” Smith said.
Fifth-grade teacher and state representative David Cox, R-Lehi, refuses to use the Investigations program in his Sego Lily Elementary School classroom.
“In reality, it doesn”t teach better thinking. It doesn”t teach the concepts any better. Many times it”s a mass of confusion to the kids,” he said. “If it were just a supplement, it would probably be a fine program. But for the fundamental basic program, it is not a good program. And mathematicians all over the country will say the same thing.”
Cox said that the district rejects differences in opinion and wants to make every teacher use the program.
“They have said that next year our school is to go on it, but I”ve bought my own math books so that I can have an alternative and teach some real math,” he said.
Sixth-grade teacher Rosemary Pangan compares the program to a map that illustrates different routes to reach the same destination.
“The kids don”t want to think, because they”re so used to a program, that says ”look kids, this is how you do it”,” said Pangan, the math specialist at Bonneville Elementary School in Orem.
“If they can see what the numbers are representing and meaning, then the numbers will make more sense,” she said.
Shannon Cannon, a mother of five children learning Investigations, co-founded Teach Utah Kids, a parent support group focused on improving education by returning to traditional math in Alpine schools.
“They”re not learning the skills they need to have,” she said. “It (Investigations) basically is just leaving our children to themselves to figure out how to do math.”
“It does have the children thinking more, but unfortunately, it doesn”t give them anything specifically to think about,” Cannon said.
At a meeting of the Enhancement of Public Education Task Force at the state capitol Tuesday, state education officials said that the Investigations program, when used alone, does not meet all state core curriculum requirements, Cannon said.
Smith noted that because different states have varying core requirements, most math textbooks must be supplemented to cover each state”s requirements. Alpine”s Web site states that the district math department has written additional lessons to teach unique state core items not covered in Investigations or Connected Math.
Alpine School District adopted the Investigations program in an effort to more closely meet the principles and standards set by the National Council for Teacher of Mathematics, Hendrickson said.
“We were looking at three different programs that fit the NCTM standards for teaching mathematics,” he said. “We felt like investigations had the best materials for teacher use.”
While school districts across the nation implement Investigations and Connected Math, Alpine is the only school district in Utah to use the complete curriculum. The Jordan, Salt Lake City and Provo City school districts use portions of the curriculum.
In the Provo School District, each elementary school has a set of Investigations textbooks teachers can choose to use, though no school uses the books exclusively, said Mel Twitchell, math and science curriculum specialist in the Provo School District.
“Do I think Investigations is a good program? I do,” Twitchell said. “I think it”s a program that has a lot of potential.”
Twitchell applauded Alpine”s efforts to educate teachers about the new program.
Smith noted that implementation of Investigations in Alpine “isn”t perfect.”
“You would be surprised at how few teachers are actually fully implementing the program,” she said.
Educators say communication between teacher and parent provides a vital link to explain the educational purposes behind non-traditional homework assignments that may involve activities such as flipping pennies to teach probability.
“The students” reception of this program is going to be mixed,” Pratt said. “It”s going to take a bit of patience on the part of the parents as well.”
Students accustomed to listening to a teacher and meticulously following directions may struggle to find methods to solve problems on their own. Other students will like the new approach, Pratt said.
Educators say younger children will adapt to the program more quickly.
“It”s always easier for the lower grade students because there”s no shift for them. They go faster,” said Melinda Looman, principal of Northridge Elementary in Orem.
“I can already see that our first, second and third-graders are doing better than they would have at this point in the year on traditional math,” she said.
“The kids are loving math. … They”re solving things in their head that they wouldn”t even have attempted before,” Looman said.
Colleen Butler has three children in the Investigations program at Windsor Elementary School in Orem. She said that her fourth and sixth- grade children “don”t get it,” though her first-grade child seems to understand the material.
“I don”t like it,” she said. “They just come home with these worksheets, and it”s all so vague to me.”