Bloomfield parents fight for old math
They say new method hurts kids
January 19, 1998
BY TRACY VAN MOORLEHEM
Free Press Education Writer
Controversy over a new math curriculum that emphasizes problem-solving over memorizing theorems and functions is growing exponentially in the Bloomfield Hills School District.
Parents say they’ve listened to teachers, speakers and administrators, and they’re more determined than ever to bring back traditional math.
“I think I’m like a lot of parents that moved to the Bloomfield Hills district and thought, ‘Now I don’t have to worry about my child’s education.’ I think I’ve been living with my head in the sand,” said Mark Schwartz, an electrical engineer whose three children attend Bloomfield Hills schools.
But school board members and administrators say parents need to open their minds to new ideas instead of jumping to conclusions.
“We’re dealing with middle and elementary parents who have anxiety about this high school program. There’s some fear of the unknown, some misinformation,” board President Mindy Nathan said last week.
Frustrated by an inability to engage the school board in discussions about the math program, called Core-Plus, Schwartz is helping to organize a group called Parents for Excellence in Math Education to figure out how to turn up the heat.
“This is an unproven system,” he said. “They are making experiments on our children — something no one, in any other profession, would be allowed to do.”
Critics of this style of math call it “math-lite,” saying it is a watered-down version of algebra, geometry and trigonometry that kids will like. They say the reliance on graphing calculators, the de-emphasis on the teacher as lecturer and the emphasis on teamwork are anti-intellectual.
Supporters say Core-Plus is actually more challenging than traditional math because students can’t just memorize theorems; they have to put math to work.
Though concerned Bloomfield Hills parents have doubts about Core-Plus, most say they aren’t asking to eliminate it; they just want the opportunity to opt out.
The desire for choice is exacerbated by the fact that one of the district’s high schools, Lahser, still offers a traditional track of algebra, geometry and calculus in addition to Core-Plus.
“We’re not anti-Core-Plus. We’re pro-choice,” said Ellen Poglits of West Bloomfield. “If the west side of the district has a choice over math programs, we don’t understand why we don’t have the choice on the east side.”
Until this year, Andover High School students were allowed to transfer to Lahser if they wanted traditional math. Now, with enrollments skewed at the high schools for other reasons, the district ended the practice.
Lynne Portnoy is one of about a dozen parents circulating petitions asking the board to offer a dual track at Andover, as well as at all three middle schools. They say the board has refused to discuss the request with them until some unspecified later date.
“I have a fifth-grader. I don’t know what program is going to be better for him when he gets to high school. What I want is the choice,” Portnoy said.
To punctuate her concerns, Portnoy points to students like Jamie Chioini, a Lahser sophomore who transferred from Andover last year after deciding that Core-Plus had left her deficient in simple computational skills.
“I became so dependent on the calculator that I forgot how to calculate simple fractions,” she told the school board Tuesday. “What are Core-Plus students going to do when they take math in college? They can’t start over like I did.”
The Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield school boards held a joint public meeting about math reform in October, mostly because of growing concerns over Core-Plus. Both offer the program, which was developed at Western Michigan University and is in its fifth year of testing throughout the country.
Since then, West Bloomfield’s board has held its own follow-up meeting to discuss the issue with parents, then formed a math committee to look at ways to adjust Core-Plus to assuage parents’ concerns.
West Bloomfield schools Communications Director Steve Wasco said controversy mostly dissipated as parents saw that their concerns were being addressed.
Bloomfield Hills parents say their board could learn from the approach.
“It’s almost as if they look at the parents and say, ‘We know what’s best for you,’ ” Portnoy said.
Barb Browne, Bloomfield Hills schools spokeswoman, said the board is simply trying to take in all available information before making up its mind. “That’s why we’re bringing in experts. We want to be sure that everyone — the board, as well as the parents — are fully informed.”
But parents say the only information they’re given supports Core-Plus.
“There are lots of people who will back it up and say it’s good. But unless you’ve got some good, hard data, are you willing to risk your child’s math future on the fact that four or five educators think it’s good? I’m not,” Poglits said.
The district’s next information session is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, when a University of Michigan math professor, Pat Shure, will give the university’s outlook on math reform. The session will be in the Andover High School cafeteria, 4200 Andover Road.
A meeting of Parents for Excellence in Math Education is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at Temple Beth El, Handleman Hall, 7400 Telegraph Road, Bloomfield Township.
Tracy Van Moorlehem can be reached at 1-313-223-4534 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org