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Pittsburgh school board gets math class

Experts suggest ways to improve curriculum

Friday, October 25, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee and Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writers

Four national experts retained by the Pittsburgh Public Schools agreed on several points about improvements that could be made in the district math program.

They said city school officials need to improve the way they collect information on student performance in math so they can accurately evaluate the effectiveness of instructional techniques.

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They also agreed that elementary and middle school students need more practice in basic math skills than they now receive.

But while the four made every effort to show respect for each other's opinions and downplay any disagreements during last night's three-hour school board forum, there were apparent differences in their perspectives.

Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, and Philip Daro, executive director of the Public Forum on School Accountability at the University of California, encouraged school officials to strengthen the current elementary and middle school programs rather than change them entirely.

They urged school officials to use the revised versions of Everyday Math, used in district elementary schools, and Connected Math, used in middle schools. The updated versions have clearer methods for teaching basic skills than the versions the district now uses.

Treisman and Daro said the district should extend the length of class periods in some instances from the current 45 to 60 minutes to 60 to 90 minutes.

They also said the district should require teachers to participate in professional development programs designed to improve math instruction.

Both men said that despite the deficiencies in the way the district records student math scores -- which they pointed out was not unusual among school systems -- they said math scores are improving.

Treisman added that when Pittsburgh is compared to similar districts in the state, it was second only to Lancaster in the percentage improvement on its average state test scores.

And Lancaster, which has shown exceptional gains in the past four years, did so because of its commitment to Everyday Math in terms of teacher training and length of class period time, he said.

"Claims that Everyday Math destroys students' lives is rhetoric. It just doesn't hold water," Treisman said.

R. James Milgram, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, neither praised nor panned the district's math programs. But he also did not view district student performance as showing that much improvement, particularly when looking at SAT scores.

Milgram also was critical of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test and said that he did not believe school officials should rely too heavily on it as indicator of student performance.

Wayne Bishop, professor of mathematics at California State University, was the most insistent of the four that district should change its curriculum.

He questioned whether recent reports that Pittsburgh students had steadily increasing scores on the PSSA were accurate or just "smoke and mirrors."

He dismissed the national tests the district administers as not good measures of student performance.

The four men were brought to Pittsburgh because the board's five-member majority have been skeptical of the effectiveness of the district's math programs, particularly in the area of teaching basic skills.

School officials said after the discussion they found the educators' suggestions helpful.

Some officials said they already had been considering changing the way they collected data on math instruction and instituting longer math periods.

Rick Sternberg, president of the Pittsburgh Administrators Association, said it would be possible to supplement the curriculum with materials that would include clearer ways to practice basic skills. But he did not believe that Bishop's recommendation to change the curriculum was practical.

"The fact that the other three had more agreements than disagreements makes me believe that they are making suggestions that will be useful for the district to consider," Sternberg said.

Sherman Shrager, a representative of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, agreed that the experts' suggestions were useful but noted that under the current teacher contract, professional development can't be mandated.

He said a greater portion of existing teacher training days could be devoted to math instruction but didn't believe the district's curriculum had to be changed.

Barbara Rudiak, principal of Philips Elementary on the South Side and a board member of the Pittsburgh Council on Public Education, said, "I thought the information was interesting."

She said that Treisman, Milgram and Daro presented information that related particularly to Pittsburgh and compared it to other places.

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884. Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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