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Alpine defends math classes

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AMERICAN FORK — Alpine School District leaders have invited Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, to discuss the mathematics programs that the high-ranking Republican recently criticized on Capitol Hill.

Barry Graff, a top Alpine administrator, sent an e-mail invitation to Stephenson, who represents northern Utah County, where the district educates children, and requested the senator hear the district's side of the math debate.

"I know that you are very busy in the current session of the Legislature, but we would relish the opportunity to share some facts with you that we doubt some of the critics have shared with you," Graff wrote to Stephenson on Monday.

Stephenson said he'll probably take the district up on the offer, but it's not the first time they've talked about the district's controversial math programs, which favor a search-and-learn approach over rote memorization of algorithms.

"A few years ago, when this issue first came up and Rep. (Dave) Cox (R-Lehi) brought it (up), I connected with the district at the time," Stephenson said. "They invited me to visit a school and watch 'investigations math' being taught."

Stephenson called the program "interesting . . . but what matters is how students perform based on the instruction and the curriculum," he said. "And that's what I'm concerned about," he said.

The senator said he's heard from dozens of parents who have children in Alpine schools who have negative views of the math programs.

In an Education Appropriations Subcommittee last Thursday, Stephenson proposed language for the state education budget that would have restricted Alpine's math programs. Instead, the subcommittee voted to study Alpine's math classes.

Alpine district officials did not attend the subcommittee meeting. District chiefs did not know its math programs were under scrutiny by lawmakers until notified by the news media, Graff said.

Standardized tests show Alpine's students score higher than the state average in math, Graff said.

"We believe that anyone would be very hard-pressed to describe our results as a failure," Graff said in his letter to Stephenson.

In 2001 Alpine introduced the program called "Investigations of Space and Data" in elementary schools and "Connected Math" in middle schools. The district has recently encouraged teachers to blend traditional math with the programs.

"Thousands of parents are supplementing their children's math education at home, and the school district is taking credit for it," said Oak Norton, a parent who testified at last week's subcommittee meeting. He spoke against the programs.

Norton has led the most recent wave of opposition to the math programs. He has collected petitions, distributed fliers, researched curriculum and paid for radio advertisements denouncing the district's math programs.

Norton said he was satisfied with the subcommittee's decision on Thursday.

"Even though they handed it off to the education committee, I feel like bringing math education to Utah of high-quality standards is the most important thing we can (do) right now."

Brigham Young University mathematics professor David Wright on Monday discussed the state's math requirements with lawmakers.

"The state core (curriculum), I believe, supports the Alpine program," Wright said. "If you were to get the elementary math (teacher) endorsement program, you could look at it and the math is almost trivial. It's mostly about pedagogy."

Wright, who testified in front of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, is concerned that students are not learning arithmetic, which he said must be mastered if they undertake algebra.

He also believes students should learn and understand traditional algorithms. He's opposed to so-called "invented algorithms" in which students are encouraged to solve problems creatively, such as with base 10 blocks or clever "number tricks."

Wright does not believe the state's math requirements are rigorous enough.

"Surprisingly, Utah is the second highest in the nation in the number of eighth-graders taking algebra, but we are still low in achievement," Wright said, pointing out that Utah students in algebra I are not required to solve quadratic equations. "Our state math core only goes through linear equations."

His recommendation: Make math harder.

"The easiest thing to do to improve math in Utah is to improve our standards," he said. "Compared with everything else, it costs almost nothing."

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com