Middle school math doesn't add up

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By Erika Gimbel

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Did you know that math teachers at Oak Park District 97 middle schools have been relying on free — and old — resources for two years? And that the district currently doesn't plan to have proven, uniform math materials until at least 2020? 

In a meeting with Dr. Helen Wei, the current curriculum director at D97, she said the middle school has a curriculum, and everything's going according to schedule. Is there really a curriculum? To have this make sense, I'm going to define the word "curriculum." If you can, stick with me because it's important. 

The district says they have a math curriculum. What they have is a list of topics aligned to Common Core standards, learning objectives, and assessments that evaluate mastery of those standards. And it's taken them two whole years to get to this point. I would argue that D97 doesn't have a curriculum because they don't supply the following to teachers, which, most education experts agree, are also essential components of a curriculum: 

Specific units and lessons that teachers teach 

Assignments and projects given to students 

Books, materials, videos, online supplements and readings 

The point is this: a curriculum without resources is not a curriculum, no matter how much the district insists they have one. The issue is an incomplete curriculum. D97 makes learning materials available, but they are free and old. I have two children at Brooks who come home with badly scanned materials on their Chromebook — worksheets that were meant to be printed, with instructions to measure, draw, and work on an actual piece of paper. Often, they have no background information to refer to when they don't understand something. 

What's worse is that materials and methods are inconsistent. As an example, one teacher uses a discovery-based learning method while in other classrooms students learn the same topics via traditional teaching methods. Sometimes these approaches are mixed within a single classroom. The problem is that students are encountering inconsistent notations, language and learning approaches. This adds to confusion and non-mastery. 

What happens when they move to the next grade? And what's the point of a standard assessment if everyone is learning topics differently? There is no debate.

Our kids can't wait. This muddle of materials and approaches is not up to the standards of this town or this district, and the 2020 target to get new materials is completely unacceptable. Children are only in middle school for three years. Thousands of children will get a sub-par math education until this issue is resolved, and, by the way, did you know Helen Wei announced her resignation? I can't imagine that she'll be rushing to resolve this issue before she leaves. 

So my ask for Superintendent Kelley and the board is this: Do not approve a 2020 — or longer — deadline to study and buy new math materials. Spend money from the referendum to get any and all help you need to evaluate and purchase proven math materials in a timely matter, at least by the start of the 2018-2019 school year. 

Students and parents deserve better. The district has the funds. And we don't have time to wait.

Erika Gimbel is a resident of Oak Park. 

Reader Comments

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Barbara Joan  

Posted: January 27th, 2018 8:13 AM

D97 & D200 gets a F for total FAIL for the worst Math & Science programs for decades, yet incompetence is rewarded with big salaries and benefits.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: January 26th, 2018 11:23 PM

April: I would suggest that D97's calling card is: "If it ain't broke, fix it till it is."

April Goodwin  

Posted: January 26th, 2018 4:44 PM

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I learned math methodically and used good old-fashioned flash cards. They worked just fine. I feel blessed to have just missed the first wave of calculators. Kids are allowed to compute math problems using calculators from an early age, which means they might not be able to figure out basic multiplication computations in their head. What is this sense of urgency, as if kids will turn into pumpkins if they don't learn a particular math skill by a certain age? The main purpose of education is being able to function at a high level in society. Teaching algebra to 1st-graders is not developmentally appropriate and can lead to frustration and turning off to learning in the early grades. Go back to the basics, which has been shown to be quite an effective method of learning.

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: January 25th, 2018 11:30 AM

It is my understanding that the Dir of Curriculum has announced her intention to leave D97 at the end of this school year. Our finance Director just voluntarily departed. As have Principals, Asst Principals, the HR director. I am not opposed to change, and like seeing 'dead weight' forced out by new ideas, but in many cases we are losing gifted people people who do not stay long in these posts. One must ask why it is so difficult to retain leadership, while adding positions (Accountability Dir, Equity Dir, entire new teaching layers, etc) seems too easy, at D97. It seems like some committed individuals are finding it difficult to achieve success here.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: January 24th, 2018 10:55 PM

Is it me or does it seem that things are unnecessarily being complicated. Erika makes a good point. Here is where the bureaucracy of a public school creates problems. In the private sector, there is a conference call or meeting called, everyone gets on the same page and they all disburse, do as they are instructed and report back every Friday. Not so much when you have administrators, teachers, parents, unions, etc. all looking for different solutions.

Terence Jones  

Posted: January 24th, 2018 3:37 PM

In the 60 plus years since I learned to differentiate, integrate and remember that a Rhombus is a "Square pushed over" at the same age as the young people at Brooks, mathematics at this level has not changed that much. Although Log Tables and a slide rule are no longer in vogue. My wife went through the Oak Park school system, our two children went through Brooks (Emerson at the time) and now two of our grandchildren have or are going through Brooks. How does a Math instruction book get old and not proven? Worn out, illegible perhaps, but the math has not changed. Teaching methods change from time to time and our kids tell us that they don't do it that way when we try to help them with their long division or other problem. Reading rotates its flavor of the decade teaching method also but kids still learn. How did all those who have gone before manage to gain an education? The "curriculum" has not changed, a parallelogram still has four sides. The key is the teachers. They are the people who give us the insights and personal attention needed to understand what we are supposed to learn.

Helen Vogel  

Posted: January 24th, 2018 9:39 AM

To Terence- Maybe we read different articles? I saw no suggestion of eliminating teachers and moving to a computerized system. I read nothing that questioned the integrity, capability and dedication of the teachers. On the contrary, I read an article that was supportive of the teachers and their need for current, concise and teachable curriculum. It appears to me that the heavy (too many & over paid) administrators are getting in the way of YOUR children's education. Students do deserve better and parents, this should be completely unacceptable to you. Poppy Vogel

Nick Polido  

Posted: January 24th, 2018 8:39 AM

First it's Hal and not Al. This concerned resident did her homework and made a thoughtful observation and argument. Why does it seem that when questioning the schools practices the immediate response is that we are questioning their integrity, capability and dedication.

Terence Jones  

Posted: January 23rd, 2018 7:23 PM

This letter seems to question the integrity, capability and dedication of the teachers at Brooks. To take the suggested approach to its logical conclusion, we would eliminate the teachers altogether and move directly to a totally computerized, homogenized teaching system presided over by an AI. Nothing in life is perfect.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: January 23rd, 2018 5:28 PM

Is this the "disruption" that the Wednesday Journal said the school needs? Looks like mission accomplished.

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