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Lean on Me

With reform math programs, parents need to be more prepared than ever for the "Help me!" plea at hom

When parents come to hear Ruth Parker of Mathematics Education Collaborative speak on quality mathematics education, they're expecting some answers. But what they may well get is a heavy dose of confusion and frustration.

"We pose a probability problem and encourage debate. We know there's going to be disequalibrium," says Parker, whose work as CEO of MEC focuses on deepening the public's understanding of issues in math education.

That can begin with a lack of understanding. After some discussion about the problem posed, parents attending the session are asked how they'd feel about going home without the answer. "We can give you the answer, but if we do you'll walk out of here not thinking about the problem anymore," Parker tells them.

So parents leave and mull over the problem with their spouses, their kids, their co-workers. And then in a few weeks, they reconvene with Parker to resolve it together.

The goal is "putting them in the context of a situation of not knowing and trying to help them understand how important it is to be in a not-knowing state but working on it," explains the veteran educator, who has directed state and district mathematics restructuring efforts. It's what their children must learn to do if they're going to be prepared to solve the complex problems facing the world today, she adds.

In communities that work with MEC, parent sessions like these may be a first step toward selecting National Science Foundation supported math programs based on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics curriculum standards.

Parents are often hesitant of the idea because of what they may have heard about "fuzzy math" not teaching basic facts, says Patty Lofgren, an associate at MEC. They may think educators are "asking less of children. But I think these programs are asking more of children than ever before," adds Lofgren, a former teacher who now helps teacher leaders and administrators prepare for MEC sessions.

Math wars aside, many parents are simply concerned about not recognizing the math coming home with their kids. "We all learned arithmetic, but these programs are teaching mathematics," Parker says.

At homework time, "their frustration falls onto the child, which brings it into the classroom," says Donna M. Vlassich, assistant director of public engagement for Pittsburgh Public Schools, which started implementing the Everyday Mathematics program in the early 1990s.

Compounding the situation is math's reputation as too difficult for some people. "Nobody ever says, 'I don't do reading.' We've allowed math to be something that people say they just don't do," Lofgren points out.

Yet parents are a critical part of the learning process, particularly with today's programs. "Parents are the students' first teachers," says Ellen Knudson of Bismarck (N.D.) Public School District. Knudson, who manages K-5 math staff development, views the seat of student understanding of deep mathematical thinking as a stool needing the support of three legs: one for parents, one for the educational community and one for the community at large.

With attention to that parent leg, districts can keep math on kids' minds outside of school and ensure the stool doesn't fall over.

All Aboard at Adoption Time

In Pittsburgh, involving parents in reviewing instructional materials is the status quo. So it's no surprise that the public engagement staff worked on getting new math programs into parents' hands before one was adopted.

"The primary decision obviously lands with the board, but we do involve parents by putting the materials at different sites [in the district] so they have the opportunity to know what their children are going to be learning," Vlassich says.

Administrators in Attleboro (Mass.) Public Schools approached the math program decision in 1999 with a blind study group of teachers, parents and other stakeholders from the community. All references to the program names were deleted so that content was the focus, explains K-8 Science/Math Coordinator Ray Gousie. A year later, the committee voted in favor of Investigations in Number, Data and Space for the early grades and Connected Mathematics for middle school. Before long implementation was underway.

To help communities facing these decisions with the parent piece, MEC has held dissemination conferences covering how to plan public sessions on recognizing and supporting quality math programs.

"The idea is to get the school and the parents talking with each other about what math is, without it being threatening on either side." -Shelley Goldman, a Stanford University associate professor of education

Yet not all districts think ahead. "Most people [implementing programs] out there ... wish they'd been working with, talking to parents right from the beginning," says Megan Murray, author of Schools and Families: Creating a Math Partnership (Scott Foresman, 2002). In her work with the TERC Investigations program implementation center, Murray has noticed that thoughtful district-wide decisions with parent input from the get go put the district in an entirely different place of parent support and trust.

And when parents aren't involved from the beginning--often so that teachers have the chance to become more practiced in using the program first--schools don't ever quite feel comfortable bringing parents on board, in Parker's experience.

Getting their attention, of course, invites debate. "Parents want to know that people are not experimenting with their kids," says Andy Clark, K-12 Math Coordinator at Portland Public School's Professional Development Academy.

Right after the district recommended Investigations and Connected Mathematics to the school board, a front-page newspaper headline announced its choice of a "fuzzy, newfangled" math program. More than a few calls hit the district switchboard after that.

So the district scheduled a series of hearings for throughout the city, where parents could learn about the programs and why their content is different. Many supporters were connected to schools that had been working with MEC. "They were very vocal and eloquent," Clark says. "That helped a lot, having some parents who were very excited about [the adoptions]."

The chance to speak up in support of new math concepts may well have prompted a very personal decision on the part of one parent, an engineer who was a stay-at-home mom at the time. "Since then she's gone back and gotten her teaching credential," Clark reports.

Forging Ahead

The scene was set for parent engagement in math education long before Investigations was adopted in Bismarck. Yet its first district-wide parent meeting--held at the North Dakota Heritage Center, where children played math games and embarked on a scavenger hunt through the museum while their parents got an overview of mathematical content--was hardly the last.

How could it be, when the initial event drew in about 500 parents in two nights? Last year, when the program pilots began, the district called in Parker to present.

The parent feedback has been a motivator. Once a woman asked Knudson if she could attend both of Parker's latest parent nights--even though the first night would be a repeat. "I would drive 100 miles in a snowstorm to hear her speak again," she remarked.

"We've tried to find various avenues and places to embed parent education," Knudson says, adding that sometimes parents just have too much competing for their time. Incentives for attending have included gift certificates from McDonald's, grocery stores and Barnes & Noble, as well as manipulatives donated by Investigations' distributor Scott Foresman and family math games to take home.

Attleboro administrators have organized two varieties of parent-only workshops to assist in program implementation. Curriculum nights, covering the content strands of Investigations and Connected Mathematics, informed parents about grade-level progression and the program's overall approach. The series was taped and will likely be aired on public television for those who missed them live. Grade-level specific workshops, meanwhile, introduce parents to new curriculum units as their children reach them in class.

To help districts handle reform math program adoptions and implementations in a way that's not focused on a particular curriculum, Shelley Goldman, a Stanford University associate professor of education, co-developed the Primes program. Its 10 workshops were designed to be easily organized by teachers and parents to build parent confidence in understanding today's middle school math programs. "We wanted it to be an experience where parents could build their own competence and see how it relates to what kids are learning in school," Goldman says.

The workshops feature videos with everyday math problems and problem-solving activities for parents to complete. "The idea is to get the school and the parents talking with each other about what mathematics is, without it being threatening on either side. It's apart from the particulars of the adoption," says Goldman, who has also developed a guide, Middle School Math: What Parents Should Know and Can Do. A "town-hall meeting" workshop based on the guide features a panel of teachers, administrators and parents sharing information and strategies related to the district's math programs and policies. Through role-playing, teachers and parents practice situations requiring communication.

Family Scaffolds

In Pittsburgh, families tackle math activities together so parents can get a better idea about what's happening in classrooms. Parent workshops have been both centralized and held at specific schools. Using mini-grant funds, some teachers have assembled math tool kits for parents to take home and use as a family, says Diane J. Briars, the district's K-12 math director.

Another Pittsburgh parent take-home: Handbooks created to explain the district's approach to meeting mathematics standards. The Pittsburgh Council on Public Education oversaw their development. "We'd already done a handbook on the literacy standards for K-5 and that was popular," says Faith Schantz, the organization's former director of publications, who headed up the project. "We knew that the math program was complicated for parents to understand and so new."

While the K-5 handbook content focuses on Everyday Mathematics and the handbook for 6th to 8th grade parents on Connected Mathematics, the focus is on the standards themselves. "The curriculum doesn't belong to parents but the standards belong to everyone. It's kind of a way in for parents, the whole idea of standards," Schantz says.

Besides explaining what students at each grade level are expected to know, each tabloid-sized guide includes samples of student work and a glossary. The K-5 handbook also has a guide to several methods of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing that students are encouraged to use; these algorithms are what tend to stump parents most about reform math programs. The middle school guide includes an introduction to the types of problem-solving students work through.

Before publication, administrators asked committees of central-office staff, parents and others to review the handbooks. "We try to be proactive instead of reactive," says Vlassich.

Schantz introduced the published handbooks to parents, walking them through each page. "The goal was to help parents understand what their children were expected to learn. It's not a substitute for parents talking to teachers or going to an event like a family math night. It's a resource," says Schantz, who has done customized versions of the handbook for two other districts.

Portland also communicates with parents in writing about math standards. The brochure, which has been translated into seven or eight major languages spoken in the community, is distributed at back-to-school night each year, Clark says.

And then each elementary and middle school holds a few family math nights a year. The events are organized by teachers, who get paid for their time.

The secret ingredient of success at these events is having either students or student work there. "When parents see the quality of the kids' work, that's a really big selling point," Clark notes. Families move between a series of activity stations using a passport system, before parents break away for discussion. All evening long, enthusiasm levels are high.

As are district achievement levels, which have seen significant progress since the implementation of Investigations and Connected Mathematics. "We are one of only six urban districts in the country where students are performing at or better than the rest of the state in grades 3, 5 and 10 [in math]," Clark says.

A National Science Foundation grant funds parent outreach efforts for Portland's math programs, as well as the district's commitment to greater teacher-student collaboration and to helping struggling students.

Attleboro family game nights are a hit, too. "The kids are very happy because they're showing off to their parents," Gousie says.

Day by Day

While math program overviews are a great start, it's everyday outreach that can cut down most on parent frustration levels.

Many program publishers help out on this front with letters teachers can send home. Portland administrators have also created customized parent notes that teachers can add to homework. Because this type of endeavor "can be a crushing requirement for teachers," Parker of MEC recommends that primary responsibility for creating the communication should lie in the central office.

Districts are using the Web as anytime support, as well. For instance, Portland parents can check the program calendar online to see what is likely being covered in the classroom on that particular day or--if they are so inclined--what's on deck for next week or next month.

Parents who still don't feel they can help their struggling child with a homework assignment are encouraged to attach a note to the teachers explaining the trouble encountered, Clark says.

It all helps ensure emotions over assignments that are different from what parents encountered in school remain in check. With conceptual problem-based assignments, Gousie says, "They get lost. And that leads to frustration because they don't want to look bad in front of their kids."

Parents in Pittsburgh can go online and find a series of good questions they can ask when their child is stuck. "They don't have to teach the child the content," Briars explains. But they might, for example, ask the child to put the math problem in his or her own words or draw a picture about it. "It gives parents something to say other than, 'I don't know,' " Briars adds.

That's not a response teachers should be giving either, of course. So districts implementing a non-traditional math program must also focus on professional development--through summer institutes, workshops embedded in the school year, coaching and other forms of support.

Getting teachers up to speed is a big challenge in helping them communicate with parents. "It's hard for a teacher to speak about a program they haven't implemented over the whole year yet," says Murray of TERC. That's why districts generally ask teachers who have completed a pilot to lead and present at parent nights--where Parker says there will be a range of ability levels, from parents who are extremely math phobic to astrophysicists who know more math than the presenters ever will.

But it's also likely that every parent has the same basic concern at heart: How will this program help my child? "We want much more for them than fluency in computation," Murray says. "As parents see that, they're reassured that we're not throwing away what they want for their kids."

Melissa Ezarik is features editor.

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