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Palo Alto Parents Square Off Over Math Curriculum

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A local dispute over new versus traditional approaches to mathematics instruction in the Palo Alto, Calif., school district has turned into an ugly public brawl.

In recent weeks, the fighting has spread beyond the schools and editorial columns of local newspapers to the global forum of the Internet computer network.

And although the specifics of the debate are peculiar to the 8,500-student district, observers have said it raises broader questions that could have national significance.

The debate in the San Francisco Bay-area district centers around questions that are central to national efforts to implement open-ended math curricula envisioned in the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (See Education Week, 5/10/95.)

In recent months, a parents' group has waged a fierce campaign against a middle school math curriculum that officials in Palo Alto say balances open-ended problem-solving with traditional computational exercises.

The new curriculum is aligned with the California math framework, which in turn closely resembles the N.C.T.M. standards.

The group, Honest Open and Logical Debate on mathematics reform, or hold,or hold, contends that what it has dubbed the "new, new math" is far from a balanced approach.

The curriculum places too much emphasis on teaching math as a "means of communication," argued Bill Evers, hold's spokesman and a researcher at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. That emphasis, he said, shirks the need to insure that children are proficient at mental computation.

Hold believes the district should offer parents a choice of math curricula in which to enroll their children.

Supporters Shoot Back

But recently, parents whose children enjoy the new approach have launched a counterattack through a community organization called Parents and Teachers for a Balanced Math Curriculum.

Members of that group argue that hold's approach would divide the school system.

Kathy Durham, a spokeswoman for the supporters of the new curriculum, said about 360 people have signed up in agreement with their statement of core beliefs.

The group, she said, was not formed specifically to counter hold's assertions, but rather to demonstrate that there is support in the community for the math framework.

"We just believe that the teachers had been left alone to defend this program for long enough," Ms. Durham said.

Ms. Durham noted that her son, a 7th grader, has excelled under the new approach to math that hold says is so detrimental. She said she became convinced that public action was needed to counter hold after comparing claims the group made about classroom instruction with the reality of her son's education.

Mr. Evers countered that the district's average scores on the math portion of the most recent Stanford Achievement Test have fallen dramatically as a result of the adoption of the new curriculum. That, he said, shows that the new approach is failing to teach traditional math skills.

Barbara Liddell, the district's associate superintendent for educational services, disagreed.

She said that the scores were an anomaly and were partly the result of preparing students for the California Learning Assessment, the controversial statewide assessment that was abandoned in September.

The district performed well on that test, she noted, which measured exactly the kinds of skills hold is criticizing.

No Solution Likely

District officials say that hold's public criticism of the curriculum and its argument that the district has failed to keep the public informed are counterproductive. Ms. Liddell said many in the district believe it was inappropriate for Mr. Evers to drum up negative press coverage of the math curriculum.

"I think that all of the parents in our school want the best education for children. But I think they have different ways of achieving those ends," she said. "To enlarge the debate to include columnists in the San Francisco Chronicle was not productive for us internally."

Mr. Evers, however, said that officials are simply annoyed because they cannot ignore the concerns of parents, many of whom work at Stanford and are well-versed in math and other technical fields.

He said that, given the constraints of the school schedule, it is unlikely any resolution of the conflict amenable to hold can be reached before the start of the next school year.

For many parents who work at the university, gaining access to the World Wide Web, a graphical link to the Internet, is a simple matter of a few computer keystrokes. That has given hold a powerful outlet for its campaign that the school district, even though it sits in the heart of Silicon Valley, does not share.

Ms. Durham, however, said many of the group's arguments, particularly its Web postings, are inaccurate and lack understanding of educational issues.

"Rather than honest, open, and logical debate, they have been asserting a position without listening to the many, many levels of response they have been getting," she maintained.

"The question is: Do we want the choices available in our children's curriculum to be defined by a vocal minority, none of whom have this expertise in education?"

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