Legislators ponder how to teach math

One of the smallest measures moving through the Kentucky General Assembly could have the biggest effects for the state's young people.

Senate Joint Resolution 19 — just two pages long — would direct the Kentucky Department of Education to write new, more concise and more rigorous core content standards for mathematics from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, and to prepare tools to help teachers implement the new standards.

Supporters say that stronger standards would boost standardized test scores, better prepare Kentucky students for college or careers, and help position the state for success in a new economy where math skills will be essential.

And there's not much doubt that Kentucky needs to do a better job of teaching math.

Last year, 44 percent of students coming out of Kentucky high schools were not ready for college mathematics, according to the Kentucky Center for Mathematics at Northern Kentucky University.

Timing, however, could be a sticking point for the resolution.

As now written, it calls for completing new math standards by Aug. 1. Several educators say they doubt that new standards could or should be completed that quickly.

In addition, changes in the standards would require approval by the U.S. Department of Education. Also, under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind act, Kentucky might have to change its Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS, if it changes math standards.

Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said there are ways the department could "tweak the system and follow the requirements of the resolution" without having to completely revamp CATS.

"But that will be difficult," Gross said. "One of our concerns about the resolution ... it's not the concept, it's the time line. Realistically, this will take time. And some aspects, like No Child Left Behind, are beyond our control."

Sen. President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has said that the state should save money by scrapping the CATS test and changing the way math is taught before it considers raising taxes.

Senate Joint Resolution 19 is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield; Sen. Kenneth Winters, R-Murray; and Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Crescent Springs.

The basic idea, supporters say, is to reduce the large number of math topics and concepts that Kentucky teachers sometimes struggle to cover over the course of a school year. Instead, they would focus on teaching a few key mathematics "focal points" at each grade level, with youngsters getting a deep and rigorous grounding in each.

The resolution requires that new standards be based on principles promulgated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

"Teaching fewer concepts doesn't mean students would be learning less," says Alice Gabbard, director of diagnostic intervention at the Kentucky Center for Mathematics. "What it means is that they would be getting all the basic skills, but they're also going to have a whole lot more understanding. It's about helping kids think mathematically, and with greater number sense."

Minnesota took similar steps with its math and science standards, and officials saw students' scores on an international skills test shoot upward, according to a recent report in the journal Education Week.

"Before, teachers in Minnesota were spending almost half of their time in math instruction on a lot of topics that they really shouldn't have been covering," said William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University who helped Minnesota develop its standards. "Now, they've eliminated a lot of topics, and they're much more focused.

"The state of Minnesota also worked very hard to make sure teachers had the knowledge to implement the new standards. Between those two things, they've realized a tremendous gain since 1995, three times that of the U.S. as a whole in fourth grade."

Natalee Feese, elementary math content specialist with Fayette County Public Schools, said Kentucky math teachers would welcome a move to more depth and fewer topics in their classes.

"There's nothing wrong with the standards we are using now. They are excellent standards. But there are a lot of them," Feese said.

"We're talking deeper, not wider. Math is cumulative. So, if you spent a great deal of time working on a math focal point in grade three, there would be no need for the fourth-grade teachers to repeat and teach that again."

William Bush, a math professor at the University of Louisville, also thinks stronger standards are needed. But he cautions that developing them would not be as simple as just "plugging in" ideas from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

"It's going to require negotiations," said Bush, who has helped write math standards in the past. "If you ask 10 people what ought to be included in 10th-grade math, you're going to get 10 different answers.

"I've been though the process before. And to do it right, it's long and tedious. I'd be more comfortable with a longer time frame than next August."