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CPM and IMP Math Curriculum at Berkeley High
What is the most effective way for a parent to give the school feedback about math textbooks and teaching? Who actually makes the decision about how math is taught? Do other high schools in the area use the same approach for math that BHS uses? I'm asking because math at BHS isn't working for my kids at all, and I am trying to figure out what to do about it.
As I understand it, the approach at BHS is for the kids to learn math on their own and from each other, with little or no instruction from the teacher. They work in groups, reading text and then working problems. They may be graded as a group, and they are encouraged to turn to their group for help, not to the teacher. The math my kids are taking is called "CPM Math", which I believe stands for "College Prep Math". The approach no doubt works for some kids, but it is failing my kids miserably and there does not seem to be any alternative but to watch them fail and suffer at math throughout their time at BHS.
Neither of my kids is on the math "fast track" - i.e., they didn't take Algebra 1 in 8th grade. I'm not that familiar with the different rankings and terminology, so please excuse my ignorance here!
My older son as a freshman didn't pass the second semester of CPM Alg1. He did not like doing math in a group, it was too slow, and he complained that the class was boring. Though he did OK on tests, he stopped doing homework and taking part in class and he got a D the second semester. He had to retake the entire year of Alg1 as a sophomore. I met with the head of the math dept. and he told me in order to get credit for Alg1, there was no other alternative but for my son to sit through the same boring class again, day after day for a second year - a pointless and frustrating waste. He made C's the second time around. This past summer, he took an entire year of geometry in 6 weeks at Piedmont High School. It was expensive and it was intense, but he wanted to catch up to his classmates. He worked hard and got a B+ for the class and he was able to get back on track with Alg 2 as a junior. This was a big boost for his self-esteem and all of his schoolwork has improved substantially this year as a result. But now we are back to the same problem with Alg2. Example: my son tells me he is having trouble understanding how to do matrix multiplication. That's hard - I know. He says another kid in the class asked the teacher to go over it again, and her reply was "If you don't know how to do it by now, I'm not going to be able to help you." My son and his friends believe the teacher does not know how to do matrix multiplication and that is why she didn't explain it. This may not be the case, but it is the impression the kids have because the teacher's role under the CPM method is not to teach.
My younger son, a freshman, is now struggling through Algebra I, doing quite poorly. His teacher was kind enough to phone me, to let me know about his poor performance. I told her that my kids do not learn well with the way math is taught at Berkeley High. She was sympathetic, but said that this method has been shown to work very well for some kids, and unfortunately she cannot teach to each child individually. So it looks like we are headed down the same path with child number 2.
What can I do at home? There are several math and engineering degrees in the house between the two of us adults, so there should be plenty of help at home, you'd think. But CPM homework problems must be solved using things we have never heard of, such as "Algebra Tiles" and "Guess and Check Charts". My son does not know what these things are either -- he probably didn't read the text. I decide to look through the textbook to try to find out. I should have done this before - it is an eye opener. I cannot detect a structure to the book. Chapters have names like "Choosing a Phone Plan", so it's hard to get a fix on how to find things. I can't spot any examples of Algebra Tiles flipping through the pages. It looks like a lot of word problems interspersed with text passages. Most every page has cartoons and the kind of cutesy drawings that teenagers make fun of. I resign myself to reading through the text. Inspirational maxims and motivational quotes are sprinkled throughout. There is a surprising amount of social theory for an algebra book. Some of the longer text passages turn out to be justifications for the CPM style of teaching. On page 21, for example, I find a page entitled "Understanding the Role of the Teacher". This passage explains that some students think "the teacher is the enemy" or "the teacher is out to get them" because "they do not recognize the style of teaching CPM uses." It adds "you may get frustrated ... but this is normal" and goes on to explain that the goal of CPM is for a student to "become a strong thinker, not a tape recorder." It's followed by a set of fairly dogmatic questions students should answer after reading it. There are more passages like this later in the book, which gives me the impression that frustration must be a common side effect of CPM, and so time must spent in Algebra class explaining why CPM is used. One passage says to go back and read page 21 again if you are still frustrated. No wonder my kids are turned off by this class. No wonder they don't do the reading. I never did locate an explanation of what an Algebra Tile is - it must be in there somewhere but it's bedtime by now so I finally just tell my son to take my word for it - X times X is X squared, not 2X, and we work through the problems using the non-CPM method.
I am worried that when it comes to math, my kids are going to be neither strong thinkers nor tape recorders, but just a pile of blank tapes. There are many interesting careers that require a decent math background, and I fear those career paths are being closed to them right now while they are still in high school. My younger son is taking after me and enjoying computer programming, but I know he needs math to get into a CS program. I don't see how he is going to get the math background he needs under the current system. It is not about the teachers, it's about the curriculum. My kids are not only turned off by this teaching method, they have become cynical, and hostile toward math in general. I have to say after reading the Alg 1 textbook, I don't blame them.
I don't know whether to cut back on my own work so I can teach them math, or hire a tutor, or think about another school. I like BHS a lot, and so do my kids, but math is important. I would like to give the school my feedback, but I just don't have the spare cycles to spend on the phone and in meetings with teachers, department heads, principals, and school board. I need to do something now for my two kids who are not learning math. I would like to hear from other parents about whether they have had a similar experience, how they dealt with it, and realistically what my options are.
I believe BHS teachers want to be effective and want their students to learn, but that they were taught a general learning philosophy in education schools that kids learn best through discovering patterns themselves. No method works for all kids. When that philosophy was applied to the language arts in the "whole language" curricula, it was disastrous for kids who couldn't discern the patterns on their own and needed direct instruction. Whole language created many "curriculum casualties" who were misdiagnosed as learning disabled. I just attended a learning disabilities conference in Concord where Marian Joseph, a member of the Calif. School Board and force behind the California Reading Initiative spoke passionately about this (her thing is that these teaching methods need to be based on educational research that proves they are effective, and whole language was not).
If you have the resources, I recommend you get him into tutoring from a trained educator who can teach him directly. Even if you worked full time on curriculum reform, it probably wouldn't change in time to help your child.
One of my concerns is that my son has come to loathe math. And that's a real shame. When he understands it, when he "gets" it, I get a glimpse of real satisfaction--what a great thing to see! But most of the time, he's so frustrated in trying to do it without prior explanation, that his experience of it is very negative. He's also very interested in computers and programming, and to pursue that, he will need more math. But he sees the math classes as some kind of punishment.
Last year, at open house, a group of frustrated parents from our son's math class all went to talk to the math chair because the teacher seemed unreceptive to hearing that our kids were all having difficulty with the lack of explanations. One of the things he talked about was the "way math is taught now" where students are supposed to try to figure out how to do it first, with explanations coming second. It seemed quite bizarre, to me. Certainly, finding a way to engage the students in thinking about what they're doing, makes sense. But I have the impression that this "way to teach math" is being enforced, without much flexibility or creativity. Or perhaps it works for some teachers who know how to use the method, but not for other teachers, who perhaps have not been trained in how to integrate this method into their classroom. Certainly, from my son's descriptions, the method seems more like spend-too-much-time-trying-to-do-it-first, find-someone-to-explain-it-after-you-fail (if you're lucky). And what about the fact that people learn differently?
I don't consider that we've "dealt" with this issue. More, I feel like we "keep dealing" with it, every week. In previous years, his dad or I would try to work through it with him. He's now at a level where we don't understand the math, so we can't be of much help, except to try and help him locate explanations or examples in the textbook. The daily grind for me is to keep stressing that it really *is* important to keep doing his homework, as best he can, and to find someone to ask, when he gets stuck. As he gets older, and as he gets *another* math class he hates, it gets harder for me to present this in a way in which he can hear it! I keep crossing my fingers and hoping that one of these years he'll get a teacher who knows how to present math in a way that is interesting, that helps him understand it, and who can communicate why it's important to know...and how he'll use it. From his perspective, none of those things are happening now.
By the way, at some point in the last couple of years, the CPM books-with-cartoons gave way to more standard looking text books. I think the one for Geometry was better (don't remember clearly). I find the one he has this year hard to follow (Math Analysis). We also have a younger son who will be at BHS in a couple of years. I would love to see something shift in the math program.
The CPM math has some real holes. Like in alegebra I they don't learn about absolute value. Then in geometry the teacher assumes they know it. Both my student and I were much happier when she moved into a more traditional math course with honors geometry. I hope this option is still open.
The other hole is lack of drill. I know drill isn't stylish. And it is boring. But the "aha!" moment doesn't work to imprint the idea in the brain of every student. Sometimes they just have to do a few problems to remember how to do it on the test. It seems pretty silly for parents to be creating drill for their individual student, when more than a few students need it. Teachers don't even have to collect it or grade it. Just give the kids the answers and let them do a few problems to get some practice. There are other problems, but these two are on my mind at the moment.
It seems to me that theoretically this approach is attractive and therefore has been adopted by the Berkeley Schools. The idea is full of faith in the student's raw ability to rise to the occassion, figure out the problem, ideally by brainstorming with other students. Admirable. However,teaching as an activity defined as the transmission of knowledge becomes obsolete under this framework. The danger is that the teacher becomes just a monitor, not even a facilitator!
I'd love to hear from a middle school or BHS math instructor or an administrator on this subject.
But, I think it's more than that. At the Open House night, his teacher gave the parents three numerical questions to answer, and wanted us to experience the 'group learning' by discussing, while he stepped out of the room. We quickly agreed that no one in the room could even guess at the answers, so the discussion was over. When he returned and we had no answers nor guesses for him, he shared how often he is surprised by the knowledge some student reveals when he gives his classes these types of answers. When I asked him, "What are your students supposed to do when they can't guess, and don't know where to start?" The teacher didn't answer my question.
My son tells me that when he doesn't understand a concept in his math class, his teacher tells him to ask his classmates for help. My son isn't inclined to do that; he's already asked the teacher, and if he isn't getting help there, he's going to give up. It shouldn't have to be that way.
The only thing I've come up with is to encourage my son to make use of the tutoring available at school, and hope he does.
Our oldest child's freshman year teacher allowed as how that year, finally, they had found a textbook that was "not too bad"...those of previous years had been unacceptable to her, I gathered. "Not too bad" is a generous description of that book. The textbooks do make an effort to show the real-world relevance of the math concepts being presented but I have the same reaction as the writer re BHS: the organizing principle of the books is puzzling and there is a lot of sociological material that is thinly (if at all) related to the math material.
The MDUSD commissioned a report on the progress and success of the PCM program; their own report shows that grades have dropped steeply and parents and students are dissatisfied, although the report claims that test scores have not dropped; however, at the time of the report the PCM program was not fully phased in, so it's perhaps hard to tell what the effect has been (I'm anxiously awaiting our junior's PSAT scores.) Most tellingly, the report showed the amount of training teachers had received for this new treatment of math: a handful of district teachers received brief training (one day, I believe) from the textbook publishers and this handful of teachers, in turn, trained other district teachers in one-day trainings. In my opinion, this is the key to the failure of the PCM program (I strongly believe it has been a failure - my kids had Algebra in 8th grade and started as freshmen in PCM II. PCM II and III were a disaster for our oldest; too early to tell for our current freshman.) At least in our high school, the kids are not required to teach each other, and the teachers don't refuse to re-explain concepts, although you may have to see them outside of class to get help - they make themselves available during study period and sometimes after school.
This situation reminds me of the "Whole Language" fiasco of recent years whereby phonics was de-emphasized in favor of a method that leaned more toward "see and say" in the teaching of early reading and whole class cohorts were shortchanged. There again, as with PCM, it was argued that the method was more wholistic and was suited to the learning styles of many students. Unfortunately, for both programs it appears that they are suited to the styles of a minority of students, not the majority. "Whole Language" seems to have largely faded from the scene; its failure was evident after a few years.
It seems a terrible shame to me that programs devised from current educational theory are being foisted, largely untested, on our children, only to fail them. The two curriculum areas I have mentioned are crucial. Reading is the foundation of all learning; and math grades in high school really, really matter. It's so unfair and harmful to do mass experimentation on our children - and to implement it poorly, to boot!
I strongly suspect that eventually PCM (or CPM, or Integrated Math) will be abandoned and more tradtional methods of math instruction will return to high schools.
I would be most interested in hearing if others have a different point of view about Integrated Math. I already know that some kids do well with Integrated Math, but in our school, that is a minority for whom perhaps this teaching style is a good match.
We and other parents complained. At back-to-school nights (and this is early in the year) it was clear that many of the kids and parents had the same complaints about CPM. I had several conversations with the then chair of the BHS math department. There was no timely response. (Although I guess the fact that three years later my son doesn't have CPM is a response.) My daugher plodded very unhappily through a whole year of CPM Algebra 2. (Only a great math teacher the next year, I think, salvaged her interest in math.)
And here is the thing that is so difficult: there seems to be no way to help our specific children at the time that they need that help, to work for the changes for the children we know best. What can we do to help our children in timely way for them? Things move so incredibly slowly on these items. Meanwhile, many are losing interest, doing poorly in math. These kids are only in high school once. A change in math programs (or reading programs, or sex education, or whatever doesn't work for them) five years from now doesn't much help our kids. (And realistically, how many of us will still be active in our childrens schools, PTA members, etc. when our own children are no longer attending?)
Here are two things I did to address curriculum and scheduling problems at Berkeley High. (Ms. Saunders: maybe these are no longer options? However, they were helpful in addressing my child's needs quickly.) My daughter took a UCB High School Extension correspondence course for the second semester US History. (Three years ago, I think this cost about $350 and all high school subjects were available. My daughter had a regular book, written assignments, etc. The teacher corresponded directly with her: lots of feedback.) She also took two semesters worth of foreign language working with a tutor. (No credit for that one, but she advanced for the next academic year, and, according to the college counselor, the issue for colleges was level attained not number of years studied.)
I understand that it is sometimes possible for students to take required courses at Vista or Laney. Of course, this is crazy: why can't our kids take the courses they need at their own school? But again, as parents, I think we have to be responsible for helping our own children when they need help. Do they have to waste another whole year with CPM. Is it fair (or responsible) to our children for us to wait through years' long processes of curriculum review and evaluation?
And why only one math program, anyway? Surely, it should be possible for there to be an alternative if one approach doesn't work. CPM's non math problem, I think, is that it is SO idiosyncratic. I think far better to have a conventional math program with CPM (or other) available for students (and parents) who need or want another style.
(And, if there are parents whose students enjoyed CPM, I would like to hear from them, too.)
It is outrageous that one can't transfer out after failing or doing poorly in CPM the first time around. That should be rectified.
The emphasis in these programs is on "discovery" rather than "instruction." It may well work for _some_ students with _certain_ teachers, but not for all. The theory behind it is sound enough -- when students "discover" mathematical principles for themselves, they integrate the knowledge more deeply than if they "just learn rules." However, "discovery" can and does occur regardless of the textbook's approach. It is the "Aha!" experience that we have when our minds finally fit the pieces together. In the end, the quality of the teacher and text, and most importantly your child's particular learning style, make a big, big difference.
The CPM/IMP approach is not for all. Whether it will work well for any given child depends very much on his/her learning style. Some kids do better when they begin with a clear statement of the underlying theorem or principle, rather than being forced to "discover" it by example as CPM/IMP requires. My son had always handled math easily but had a terrible time with CPM Algebra precisely because its deductive approach runs counter to his learning style and personal strengths and weaknesses. But others of his peers seemed to do well with it. I can't say enough good things about his teacher at King, Mark Delapine, but the program just didn't work for this kid. (he is now in Mr. Ward's Honors Geometry class, which uses a "traditional" approach, and seems to be getting it just fine again.)
Finally, if you want to be able to help your child with their homework, you will probably have a harder time in the CPM/IMP sequence. Be sure to get the parent's manual ($10 by mail) ASAP and be prepared to do a lot of work.
Although in some respects there are many options at Berkeley High, the current policy of not allowing kids to change teachers even if a teacher is totally incompatible with the student is a disaster! Anonymous (4/00)
Similar problem with math. Oh, kids don't need lecture, they don't pay attention anyway. Kids don't need drill, they think it is boring.
Problems are created whenever people try remove ways to learn. We should be adding, not subtracting, ways to learn.
And the whole group learning process is a mess. The know-it-alls in the group cause confusion for everybody. I think that none of the teachers my kids had taught them group process or group dynamics. They just throw them in a group. Judging from the groups I have seen, very few of them work. Although it is a sight to behold when it does. Anonymous
Does anyone have any first-hand experience with the IMP math track at Berkeley High? Does anyone know a student who actually completed four years of this program to know how well prepared they were for SATs, college math, etc? I know that teachers need to be specially trained to teach IMP so not all teachers at BHS teach it. Are the teachers who do teach it good? The IMP (integrated math program) is the "alternative" track for math at Berkeley High which does not follow the traditional algebra/geometery/adv algebra/math analysis/calculus route but rather covers all of them in a more "experiential" way. Some say that the IMP program is for math 'incompetents'. Also, once you begin on the IMP track it is not possible to switch back to the traditional track without losing ground. Any feedback welcome.
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