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Cambridge Public Schools are considering a switch to the Math in Focus program for grades K-8. (Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Cambridge Public Schools are considering a switch to the Math in Focus program for grades K-8. (Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“The outlook for K-5 world language appears grim.” So Mervan Osborne, the School Committee’s budget subcommittee co-chairman, summed up the school department’s interim report at a Tuesday budget retreat.

Maryann MacDonald, assistant superintendent for elementary education, had just presented one of the two “dilemmas” school department staff said they struggle with as they craft next year’s budget. Superintendent Jeffrey Young is scheduled to present the first draft of the fiscal year 2015 budget to the School Committee at a March 11 meeting.

Despite the fact “we all” want to find a way to include elementary-level world language, MacDonald said, “within the constraints of a six-hour day, we have a programmatic issue.” While saying they are still discussing the issue and the matter is not closed, MacDonald and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Jessica Huizenga sent strong signals to the committee not to be optimistic.

They pointed to pressures on teachers and principals to squeeze other elements into the day. For K-3, they want “focus on all students [becoming] proficient in reading and math by grade 3,” so there’s no room for world language in those grades, MacDonald reasoned. They have 120 minutes per day of English and are looking to add an additional 180 minutes per week of science and another 100 minutes of social studies in grades 4 and 5. In addition, the students have instrumentals, some schools get City Step movement classes and next year begins Partnership for the Assessment of College and Careers standardized testing for science and engineering. And all of the minutes they want to add do not include interventional support, Huizenga said.

Frustrated

Some committee members were clearly frustrated. Providing a plan for K-5 world language is one of the elements in the committee’s budget guidelines for the next fiscal year and was a prominent goal in the superintendent’s Innovation Agenda. “How many other schools with six-hour days are there that do do world language? What do they do?” Fred Fantini asked. He suggested that at the least the administration explore ways to provide access to world language to all children outside of the school day.

Patty Nolan pushed back on the notion that the elementary schools needed to stick with 120 minutes of English. “We have been using that large amount of minutes for five to 10 years now … and our achievement gap hasn’t moved. If you combine that with the research that says that a second language allows more kids to access things in different ways, maybe we can substitute with another form of literacy? Can we think outside of the box? Many other districts are doing better than we do with fewer minutes.”

Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk said they are not yet ready to present answers and will be revisiting this topic in the coming weeks.

Math in Focus

The other “dilemma” presented by the school administration was around the proposal to replace the current K-8 math programs with Math in Focus, a Singapore math-based program. Some committee members had raised questions about, first, why Cambridge needed a complete math program overhaul, and, second, what it meant that Math in Focus had been presented as “reading-intensive.” There was concern about the burden of time and money to buy and train for a new program, as well as worry about the impact the heavy literacy component would have on children struggling with reading coupled with what the administration says is a growing number of students who are English language learners.

One reason for the proposed change, Huizenga said, is that Math in Focus, unlike the current K-5 Investigations program, is a K-8 program, providing more continuity from the fifth grade to middle school. The district sees a big dip in sixth-grade math performance because of the change in technique, she said.

She also felt that Math in Focus allows a progression of topics that is a better match to the common core requirements dictating curriculum.  Finally, she argued that Math in Focus has relatively more emphasis on obtaining “fluency” in math building blocks. Both Investigations and Math in Focus have three components: fluency, problem solving and conceptional understanding. Huizenga promotes Math in Focus as more balanced across the three and giving kids more and earlier expertise in the concrete calculations. Math in Focus also provides a textbook for children and an enrichment book for teachers to aid in pushing advanced learners, neither of which Investigations has, she said.

Here’s how marketers for Math in Focus explain it:

Huizenga confirmed that Investigations is reading-intensive in email correspondence after the meeting. “The Investigations program does have a higher level of reading than Math in Focus,” she wrote. “In Investigations, students are asked to complete activities that either a teacher must explain or students need to read instructions to understand.” She maintained that Math in Focus uses relatively more pictorial processes and handheld manipulatives and introduces mathematical operations and symbols earlier than Investigations. Investigations has no textbook “that could guide students or present the content in a different way,” she wrote, while the Math in Focus textbook “can be used as a resource to support students who may struggle with any … representations.”

The cost of buying the new math program has not been presented. In the Jan. 28 committee meeting, Huizenga said the switch would mean 24 hours of professional development for each teacher, with a minimum of 18 hours ongoing throughout the year.

Supporting students, partnerships

The rest of the meeting focused largely on committee members’ desire to strengthen the funding for social, emotional and behavioral support for students. Various members talked about social workers, guidance counselors, school psychologists and adjustment counselors, leading member Kathleen Kelly to say she would like to see a broader conversation stepping back to build a more consistent, comprehensive approach out of the various approaches.

Several members also want to see indications in the budget that the city is supporting partnerships that have been proven to get results, with an emphasis on the Breakthrough Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on guiding low-income students from middle school through to college.

And once more, high school class sizes came up. Member Fran Cronin pointed out that part of the issue appears to be a migration of students from college prep classes to honors and advanced placement, which may suggest that the college prep classes are not in fact serving student needs. Mayor David Maher wants this issue put to bed: “None of us want to be in the same place that we are next year. I want to see how are we going to get out of this mess.”

The next committee meeting is 6 p.m. March 4.

This post was updated Feb. 13, 2014, to remove part of a quote from Mayor David Maher that seemed at first to be related to a topic discussed here.