- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2000

Fairfax County's (Va.) math curriculum is so incomplete, some parents say, that they are being forced to hire private tutors to supplement their children's math classes and fill the gaps in their understanding of the subject.

Children who come from the school system "realize at the high school and college level that they are not prepared" for more advanced math, said Karen Jones-Budd, a parent on the county's Math Curriculum Advisory Committee.

"Students who get A's at high school get to college and find they cannot cut the mustard," she said.

Mrs. Jones-Budd, who was appointed to the advisory committee by at-large School Board member Mychele Brickner, said she was so dissatisfied with the math curriculum and textbooks in her older daughter's Oakton High class, she put her in a private school.

Mrs. Brickner said she sent her son, who attends high school in the county, to a private tutor, "but not everyone can do that."

Another parent, Teri Clemens, said unhappiness with the math curriculum is widespread.

"I don't know any [parent] who liked the way math is taught in schools" in Fairfax, she said.

Mrs. Clemens, whose daughter just graduated to middle school, said she felt compelled to hire private tutors to supplement her daughter's math education.

She said she particularly was shocked when the principal at her daughter's school told her that a student should be able to walk into a room and estimate how many feet of carpet are in it. "We are talking about a fourth-grader here," Mrs. Clemens said.

At present, the math taught in most Fairfax County schools focuses on problem solving and construction, and encourages children to learn by connecting various topics in math, said Ron Zirkel, the school system's appointee to the math advisory committee.

Mrs. Jones-Budd, who has a degree in math, said children do not master the fundamentals of math, like algorithms, under the method used in Fairfax.

The advisory committee members are divided over what method to use to teach math in the county's schools, echoing a national debate.

Some say they prefer a method that encourages conceptual understanding, which is currently used in most county schools. Others, like Mrs. Jones-Budd, support the Saxon method, which she describes as "a practice-oriented style focused on mastering fundamentals" and also insists is conceptual.

The argument could come to a head next summer when the county school system appoints a textbook revision committee for math as part of a routine procedure held every seven or eight years. The math advisory committee has about 30 members that include administrators, teachers and parents. The committee meets five times a year and will meet this month.

Mrs. Jones-Budd said the Saxon method, a core method that relies on constant practice, was something she had used in school and was "more straightforward."

Others, who call the Saxon method a "drill-and-skill" one, say they prefer a method that encourages conceptual understanding.

Although math scores in standardized tests like the Standards of Learning (SOLs) actually rose this year in Fairfax, Mrs. Jones-Budd said the exams just showed how focused the teachers were, rather than proving the effectiveness of the math curriculum. "The teachers knew what is being tested in the SOLs," she said.

The Saxon method is now "decried" as "drill-and-skill oriented," Mrs. Jones-Budd said, but there is one school in Fairfax that teaches math by this method, Forestville Elementary, which has a core knowledge focus. The school had done far better in math tests than other comparable county schools, she said.

Mr. Zirkel, a former math teacher, said the success of Forestville had to do a good deal with the background of the students attending it. "Expectations are higher in this community … we can't look at it in terms of the textbooks they use.

"What we need to do in Fairfax is to continue to focus on children's problem-solving skills."

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