Math Forum

We had an interesting Math Forum last night, sponsored by the PTO (which I understand is called the PTA in some states). This was an opportunity to discuss Weston’s secondary math program in an open forum. Maybe 55-60 parents attended, along with six middle- and high-school math teachers. I probably talked too much…but I had a lot to say, not to mention a wealth of experience and historical knowledge. (No false modesty here.)

The format was a carefully chosen one, ably moderated by our Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction: first there were questions from parents, written down but not immediately answered, followed by a slide show created by our department head with considerable input from department members, and then answers (by the teachers) to parent questions that had not been addressed in the slide show. Sometime the answers sparked further comments and questions by parents; the best question unfortunately came a mere five minutes before the end of the event, so there was no time to explore it. I don’t have the exact words written down, but it was something to the effect that data analysis has become much more important to most people than calculus is, so what are we doing about that? We did have time to point out that the number of sections of AP Statistics has risen in the past three years from two sections to three to four, not to mention the inclusion of statistics units in Honors Algebra II, college-prep Precalculus Part Two, and Applied Discrete Math Concepts. But it deserved more time than it could get.

Other questions ran the gamut from how we will integrate online courses and web-based learning to how we can support kids who outpace what we offer in Computer Science. (Note that the disciplines of Statistics and Computer Science are handled by the Mathematics Department, as they are in almost all high schools, even though they are actually separate disciplines.) There was the inevitable question about why we have only two levels and not three (or four? or five? or six…?). Because the attendees were not in the least a random sample of parents, we got a lot of specialized questions, like the Computer Science one or a question about workload differences between honors and college-prep courses. There were several questions about integrating the science and math programs, which is a much larger and more difficult issue than most people suspect. There were a couple of questions about teaching engineering, but that’s already being addressed by the Science Department. (Engineering is, of course, a very different discipline than chemistry or physics or biology, but I suppose it bears the same relationship to them as computer science and statistics bear to mathematics.)

The most challenging questions were these two:

  • A parent asked whether students are taught “only one way” to solve a problem. The context was that he had showed his kid a different way from the one the teacher wanted, and the teacher gave little or no credit for the solution. We explained that we actively encourage multiple ways of solving problems, but there are times when we have to insist on a certain process since that’s the very skill being taught. For example, I pointed out that if I am teaching the process of solving quadratics by factoring, it won’t do for a student to use a different method, since the subject of the lesson is factoring! (Subtle issue here: the subject is factoring, not getting answers to a quadratic. We value the concept of learning a process much more than the concept of getting the right answer. This does not, of course, mean that “the important thing is to understand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer,” in the words of Tom Lehrer’s immortal parody.)
  • Another parent claimed that his two children were given very different amounts of partial credit for the “same” solution to a problem. Although this can of course happen — teachers are human and not always consistent — I explained that it’s more likely that the solutions were actually not the same at all. I told a brief anecdote about a situation that had happened to me a few days earlier, where a former student of mine came to me to say that her current teacher had  “given” her only three points on a solution where I had “given” six points to one of my own students who had written the “same” solution. So we took a look at the scoring rubric, and sure enough their solutions were not the same at all: the first student had accomplished a one-point and a two-point task on the rubric, whereas the second one had accomplished a three-point task in addition. (Rubrics are a subject for another post, but we were faithfully following the same schema for assigning partial credit.)

Anyway, it was a productive evening. Even if I talked too much, I also did a great deal of listening, and I think the parents all felt that their concerns were heard even if they were not convinced by all of our answers. In the familiar words of  the vizier Ptahhotpe in the reign of Asosi (Dynasty V, 2414 – 2375 BC):

(You probably want to know what that means, since you neglected to study Middle Egyptian in college. The translation goes something like this: “A petitioner had rather that his words should be attended to than that the thing for which he came should be accomplished.”)


Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning, Weston