Battle over math teaching spreads
Alpine District dispute: The argument about 'silly' instructions spawns new schools, triggers legislation; Math war ripples beyond Alpine

Celia R. Baker The Salt Lake Tribune  

Dissatisfaction with math curriculum in Alpine School District might seem like a local issue. It isn't.

Alpine's math wars made the area ground zero for the explosion of charter, home and private schools in Utah, and the discord continues to drive legislation regarding school choice.

"Fuzzy math" in Alpine is also the catalyst for a push by one legislator to reduce the size of school districts -- a cause now taken up by cities in the Granite School District. And discontent over "Alpine math" is behind conservative Republican legislators' early opposition to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Grade 4-6 Math Initiative.

Eagle Mountain resident Doug Cannon, father of seven, became concerned about Alpine's math curriculum soon after the district adopted the "Investigations" math program in its elementary schools in 2001.

The textbook series is meant to improve students' understanding of math through discovery of math concepts. As originally implemented, it downplayed rote learning and memorization of traditional algorithms such as times tables.

Cannon and other parents disliked "silly" nontraditional assignments.

"We went to school board meetings and talked to people at the district, but felt like they weren't listening," Cannon said.

Choose or lose: He and his wife Shannon first looked into enrolling their children in charter schools, which operate under the public school system, but outside its direct control. Because there was no charter school near them at the time, Shannon began teaching the children at home. As many charter schools do, the Cannons use a program called Saxon math that they supplement with other materials.

"I do still believe in the importance of public schools," Cannon says. "I just don't want my kids going there."

The Cannons found plenty of company in their flight from the Alpine district. The area is a bastion for conservative groups such as The Sutherland Institute and the Eagle Forum that support school choice. Given the political climate of the area, and the progressive underpinnings of "Investigations," Alpine's early unwillingness to address parent concerns had the effect of showering sparks on dry tinder -- a point the district now recognizes.

"We probably didn't implement this the right way in 2001," said Barry Graff, Alpine curriculum specialist. "Now we have a balanced math approach -- a deeper understanding of concepts, but addressing parent concerns on algorithms and basic facts."

No silver bullets: Graff says Alpine's math test scores are higher than state averages. He rejects the idea of banning a particular program as a way to improve math instruction.

"There's no silver bullet -- not "Investigations" and not Saxon math," Graff says.

Though he says his district is adjusting its approach, "Investigation's" rocky implementation continues to bear bitter fruit.

Waiting lists at charter schools in Alpine grew precipitously after 2001, and a push developed for the Legislature to remove the cap on charter school growth. It did so in 2004, and the number of schools in the Alpine area skyrocketed. Including new charter schools about to open, Alpine has the highest percentage of Utah's 52 charter schools among the state's districts.

The number of parents in Alpine district who pay to send their children to private schools also began climbing. And parents of those students became natural advocates for school vouchers or tuition tax credits.

At this year's Legislature, a "compromise" bill to provide tuition vouchers for private schooling while protecting financial interests of school districts is undergoing revisions and has not yet been assigned to a committee.

Busting big districts: As the school choice movement grew in Alpine district, Rep. David Cox, a Lehi school teacher, took a different tack. Cox believes Alpine is only one of many Utah school districts that are growing too large, too unresponsive to local concerns and too likely to balance budgets by busing students to huge schools where parents have little input. Leaders of Holladay, South Salt Lake and West Valley City, unhappy over school closures and restructurings in the Granite district, are pushing for passage of Cox's HB77, which would allow cities to form their own school districts.

Competing cures: Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, represents Alpine. Over the years, he has sponsored or instigated numerous bills relating to privatization of education.

Stephenson originally opposed Huntsman's math initiative, which would provide perhaps $10 million to strengthen elementary teachers' math skills and provide supplemental instruction for struggling students. He favors paying bonuses to teachers who bring up test scores in their classes, which he says will furnish incentive for top teachers to take jobs in schools where test scores are lowest.

The idea of bonus pay is at the heart of a complex education reform bill sponsored by Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, with Stephenson's support. Though Urquhart's bonus-pay bill was first viewed as unwelcome competition to Huntsman's math initiative, Stephenson said Tuesday that a new version of the bill brings the two ideas together. The bill will be discussed today at a House committee meeting.

Stephenson thinks Utah should adopt California's math standards, which were developed in the 1990s in response to controversies similar to those in Alpine. As California's math scores declined, many blamed progressive math programs -- though other changes, such as a dramatic increase in immigration, were possible factors.

California's scores have begun recovering since the state adopted new math standards. On National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, Utah outscores California in math at the fourth grade level overall, but not when the scores are broken out by ethnicity. This concerns Stephenson.

Utah standards: Brett Moulding, Utah State Office of Education curriculum director, has examined California's math standards against Utah's, and does not share Stephenson's concerns.

"At the elementary grade levels, there are not significant differences," Moulding says. "The language is different, but they are getting at same concepts -- that students compute well, understand reasoning and gain a math foundation for courses that follow."

Furthermore, California's elementary math standards are less clear in sequence and scope than Utah's, says Nicole Paulson, USOE's elementary math specialist.

According to Paulson and Moulton, the problems in Alpine district were not the fault of Utah's core standards, but arose from the way the district tried to implement them. Moulton cautions critics:

"If you are unhappy with the textbook, don't attack the standards." "Currently we are keeping up with the nation," Paulson adds. "With the math initiative, I think we could help our students excel and be at the top of the nation."

Finding a common ground

* The Mathematical Association of America is one group engaged in trying to find common ground in the national "math wars" between mathematics educators and mathematicians over how the subject should be taught. Learn more about it at

* See Utah's math core standards at

* See California's math standards at

* For an overview of the math controversy in Alpine School District (from the point of view of a disgruntled parent) see

* The full text of the 4-6 Math Initiative can be seen at

Picture: Shannon Cannon, at right, holds class with her seven children in the family's dining room in Eagle Mountain during a recent home-schooling session on math. The Cannon family was discouraged by the choice of mathematics curriculum in the Alpine School District. Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune

(c) 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.