Monthly Archives: September 2011

Investigations Vindication: Part 1 of 2

The city Department of Education is quietly rolling out a new mathematics curriculum in some, maybe most, of its elementary schools this year (I’m not sure).  After nearly ten years of the program called Everyday Math, the system is adopting TERC Investigations.  I’m really excited about this change, for two reasons: it’s a vindication of sorts for our school; and any curriculum decision made on such a large scale, while also inherently political, opens a window into the practice and raises the key questions we face as a society if we are to close our various academic achievement gaps.  In a subsequent blog post I will share my thoughts on the latter, which involve Pablo Picasso and the Appian Way.

Why is the city’s TERC Investigations adoption a vindication for our school?  Following Albert Shanker’s vision of teacher-led charter schools, we founded Harlem Link on the idea that we would be able to adopt a vision, stick with it and make only those changes and modifications that suit our community’s needs.  We would use the expertise of our staff members, the input of our wider community of learners, and data we gather about our students to make those decisions.  We would be sheltered from the shifting winds of reform that lead to the “just close your door; this mandate will too soon pass” mentality that has been the norm—or the necessity, for those who want to keep their professional integrity intact—in many New York City schools for decades.  The city adopted Everyday Math a year or two before we opened our school.  We steadfastly held to TERC, which we thought would better help us meet our mission and the state standards.

A quick explanation of the difference between the two programs is in order.  Firstly, they have a lot in common; both encourage “constructivist” instruction, in which students play games to explore math concepts and face problem solving challenges in order to develop their thinking before being handed an algorithm and told how to solve a problem.  The theory of learning behind constructivist math instruction holds that learning is better cemented when learners are actively engaged in building that knowledge, and that experiential understanding, trial and error within a community of learners who correct and inform each other, will go farther than a lecture-style “in one ear and out the other” approach. 

What’s different about the two programs is their approach to content.  Everyday Math takes a “spiraling” approach, meaning that the same topics are revisited constantly throughout the school year with increasing rigor and sophistication.  Today we’re talking addition and subtraction, tomorrow circles and squares, and the next day fractions.   TERC Investigations takes the opposite approach; discrete units of study demarcate a deeper study (and “investigation”) of a specific concept or set of concepts.  Geometry may come once a year for five or six weeks, for example, and the rigor increases each school year. 

There are obvious advantages to both methods, but in our view Investigations won the day because the deeper study allows young scholars to build their ideas over time and have more meaningful practice time.  Everyday Math can come off as a series of disjointed, unconnected experiences for an elementary school aged child.

Seven years later, the TERC Investigations program is working for us, with some important modifications we made because of the input of our teachers.  While city teachers are learning a whole new curriculum and, really, a whole new way of thinking about curriculum, we’re continuing to truck along with improving our practice in what has already been a successful math program. 

Look, the standards are still too low and will continue to rise, and we have a lot of improving to do, but in 2011, 98% of our students met the state’s accountability requirement on the state math exam (called the “Time Adjusted Cut Score”).  Our scores on the math exam were once again well above the city average, despite the fact that we know from our internal testing that one of our classes grossly underperformed on the test.

We’re incredibly proud of our math instruction.  Our scholars act like mathematicians, proposing strategies and solutions, trying them out and debating those methods with their colleagues.  This argument begins in kindergarten.  Please come visit and see our math workshop in action.  And stay tuned for Part 2, or why the city’s change in curriculum helps us see why teachers need to emulate the one and only Pablo Picasso.

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