WASHINGTON – Before Leslie Hammond asks her eighth-graders to divide negative 67.9 by 9.7, she tells them to repeat a song they have learned to keep track of positive and negative numbers.
“When you want to multiply or divide, this is how you determine the sign: same signs, it’s positive and different signs, it’s negative,” the class chants.
Teaching such basics has long been standard practice at Hyattsville Middle School and in other Prince George’s County schools, educators said.
But in a state that recommends hundreds of objectives and allows each school district to write its own curriculum, teachers may be forgetting what’s crucial, experts said.
To address this lack of uniformity and vision, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics suggests in a new report that teachers at each grade level focus on three essential areas.
Eighth-graders, for example, would learn about linear functions and equations, two- and three-dimensional figures and data sets, said the Sept. 12 report, “Curriculum Focal Points for Pre-kindergarten through Grade 8 Mathematics.”
“The focal points are very explicit” about what students need to learn, said W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor at Johns Hopkins University and former mathematics adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.
The report can help Maryland prioritize its Voluntary State Curriculum, a list of seven standards, each broken into various subsections, he said.
Certain topics, like statistics and probability, which are less critical in elementary and middle school, are given too much weight in the Maryland curriculum, Wilson said.
Meanwhile, not enough emphasis is placed on “developing fluency with standard algorithms,” meaning students must be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide at an early age.
Even though school districts are not required to adopt the state document, most use it as a model because it highlights topics students will face on state tests. A narrowed state plan might inspire improvements in local programs.
“I don’t think Maryland does what the focal points do in the sense of ‘Look: Here’s the priority,'” Wilson said.
Some educators agreed that the combination of state goals and local recommendations results in confusion, and saw the report as a possible solution.
“Often times what happens is that there is so much to teach,” said Sharon Lewandowski, a mathematics support teacher at Bryant Woods Elementary School in Howard County.
Lewandowski, who helped write “Curriculum Focal Points,” said that zeroing in on three areas will reduce clutter.
Pam Heaston, pre-K-through-six mathematics supervisor in Talbot County, said educators in her district “feel the pressure of covering a large number of topics because of the organization in the Voluntary State Curriculum,” and added that the National Council’s three-topic approach “is certainly within the realm of possibility.”
Hammond, who has taught in Prince George’s County for 14 years, said she didn’t feel there were too many benchmarks, but was frustrated by the differences in expectations from district to district.
“If the student moves from within the county, they are on the same page,” she said, adding that problems arise when students transfer from other counties or from Washington, D.C.
But other curriculum experts weren’t sure if the council’s recommendations would prove useful.
“Mostly what they’re doing we’re already doing when we do our curriculum,” said Diana Kendrick, Prince George’s County supervisor of mathematics for grades six through 12.
“There’s probably some benefit, but we’d have to look at it in more detail,” she said.
Jim Rubillo, the council’s executive director, said the report’s “intent is to start a discussion and to serve as a resource for that discussion.”
In some cases, he said, a simple reorganization of the present curriculum might give teachers a better sense of what’s most important.
Donna Watts, coordinator for mathematics at the State Department of Education, said the report has its pluses.
“This is a cohesive way to present the concepts and procedures for those three topics,” she said.
Representatives from Maryland’s school districts will meet with officials at the Department of Education to discuss the report on Oct. 26, Watts said.
“Curriculum Focal Points” will be considered, she said, along with other documents when the state reviews its curriculum in about four years.