Wednesday, May 16, 2001

About 100 people gathered last night to debate the future of Fairfax County, Va., public schools´ math curriculum at a town hall meeting meant to educate parents about the county´s textbook-selection process.

The meeting, titled “Better Math for a Brighter Future,” was sponsored by School Board members Rita Thompson and Mychele Brickner and was weighted toward—those who believe a continued emphasis needs to be placed on the fundamentals of math, which are built on as the student advances. But Mrs. Brickner made no apologies for the meeting´s emphasis on “fundamentalists.”

“Rita and I felt like the constructivist point of view has really permeated through Fairfax County. We felt it was time people heard the other side,” she said.

The textbook selection has garnered more attention than might be expected because it has exposed a battle — among School Board members, parents and teachers — over how math should be taught.

The “constructivists” believe that learning mathematics requires much more than memorizing facts and formulas. They say a greater emphasis should be placed on the underlying concepts of mathematics in an effort to prepare students to meet the challenges they will face outside the classroom.

Panelists of last night´s meeting included Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Rick Nelson; West Springbrook High School physics teacher Ed Linz; math curriculum advisory committee member Karen Jones-Budd; and Paul Clopton, a college professor from California.

“You can have it all. You can have both,” said Mrs. Budd, referring to the different approaches to teaching math. “First you have to master the fundamentals.”

The crowd at Luther Jackson Middle School — a mix of parents, teachers and administrators — responded with applause.

“This is math, and it shouldn´t have political science in it and it shouldn´t have ‘save the whales´ in it. It should have math in it,” Mr. Clopton said in his presentation.

Susan Mason, a part-time government contractor with two children in Fairfax County schools, agreed that textbooks are being taken over by “diversionary instruction” that better suits the social studies class. “I don´t feel like my sons are getting the basic lessons in math education that they need,” she said.

Mr. Linz called the math skills of the students he teaches “disappointing at best.”

Overall test scores don´t bear out the idea that the crisis is immediate. Fairfax students scored an average of 568 on the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Assessment Test last year, well above the national average of 508 and even above the Virginia average of 496. While overall scores as well as those of minorities have fluctuated in the last five years, math scores are higher than they were in 1996.

Students in Fairfax even outpaced those in Montgomery County, who last year scored an average of 556 on the math portion of the exam, widely used by colleges in determining admission.

In Virginia´s Standards of Learning tests, scores in grades three, five, eight and high school, mathematics scores have consistently risen from 1998 to 2000.

Stanford 9 tests reveal that in the fourth and sixth grades, test scores continue to rise. But Mrs. Brickner says those results can be deceiving.

In the ninth grade, minority students across the board have lost ground in the last year in mathematics subjects. Particularly troubling is that Hispanic students have lost ground each of the last three years. Their scores are particularly important because one charge from fundamentalists is that word-based problems stressed by constructivists are detrimental to their achievement. Hispanic enrollment has increased in Fairfax from 9.8 percent of students in 1996 to 13 percent this year, with more than 20,000 enrolled in the school system.

Last night´s meeting has been a source of division within the School Board.

In an April 26 memo to the board, School Board member Stuart Gibson said the timing of the meeting — as the school system begins the process of reviewing textbooks ahead of awarding the $9.5 million contract — could “cast doubt on the integrity of the process that Fairfax County public schools has implemented to adopt new textbooks.”

Mr. Gibson questioned the presence of Mr. Clopton, whose Web site,, reviews textbooks and advocates a fundamentalist approach to math education.

He also said the presence of the board members might make parents believe the event is sponsored by the board, although a disclaimer was read before the meeting saying the views of the panelists were their own.

On Saturday, Annandale High School will host a textbook fair where parents will have a chance to review the books the selection committee will be evaluating.

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