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Some parents say elementary math system used by Mt. Lebanon neglects basic skills

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:41 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon schools will continue to use an elementary school math program that some parents say doesn't teach enough traditional calculation methods. But administrators will examine where teachers and parents identify gaps in their students' knowledge.

The “Investigations in Number, Data and Space” curriculum, first adopted in 2007-08, bothered some parents who say it neglects traditional algorithms — long division, or carrying and borrowing in addition, multiplication and subtraction — in favor of breaking problems into pieces. That means multiplying and adding whole, round numbers, then recombining those results for the answers.

“It falls on the parents to teach U.S. algorithms at home,” said Jeff Woods, representing concerned parents who attended Monday's school board meeting.

“Currently addition and subtraction algorithms aren't introduced until the fourth grade; multiplication and division algorithms are not taught until the fifth grade ... Our concern is that's too late.”

Woods presented studies questioning the effectiveness of the program and he dismissed data the district cited to support the program, saying they had problems including being insufficiently independent.

The nearly 75 parents who attended the meeting at the Jefferson Middle School Library said they don't want the district to drop the math program, they just want to balance it with other methods. District math curriculum leaders at the meeting detailed why they feel the Investigations program is better for students than traditional math programs because it focuses on a deeper understanding of number rules, properties and basic operations, makes students more “mathematically literate” and offers multiple ways to solve problems.

Traditional algorithms are taught as one of many problem-solving methods, the math curriculum leaders said.

For example, “71 times 4” might be broken up into 7 times 4 times 10, plus 4; or 71 times 2 plus 71 times 2.

“The dialogue from students on a daily basis, the depth to which they take it, is amazing,” said Kim Robbins, an elementary math teacher. “They're using mathematically literate language, they're having fun, and they're learning — our test scores say they're learning.”

Lincoln Elementary Principal Marybeth Irvin said the schools follow state standards for skills that students must master for standardized tests.

The district will work with parents, teachers and math coaches at the seven elementaries to identify if the program is taught differently among schools or if gaps develop in students' skills.

Board president Elaine Cappucci said she would give district officials time to answer questions Woods raised about test scores related to the program and justification for its use.

“(District staff) would not bring us a math program that would produce failure,” Cappucci said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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