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Cambridge Public Schools Rethink Math Education

By Linda Zhang, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge Public School Committee met with a group of mathematics experts last night for a roundtable discussion on the latest trends in teaching mathematics in public schools.

The meeting—the first this year featuring outside experts—included presentations from math education professionals followed by a discussion among Committee members.

Patricia M. Nolan ’80 raised concerns parents have raised about the math curricula at the schools.

“District results that show the need of greater performance in mathematics,” Nolan added.

According to the 2008 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test results, about half of Cambridge Public School students fall into the below-average categories of “Needs Improvement” or “Warning/Failing.”

The committee members also discussed the difficulty of meeting the varying needs of all students, including advanced students.

“Certain students are going to take more [from the curriculum] than others,” said Suzanne Chapin, who teaches at Boston University’s School of Education.

Several others echoed this sentiment, arguing that divisions within a classroom would address the large discrepancies in academic level among students.

Mary Eich, the K-8 mathematics coordinator at the Newton Public Schools, said that the “most difficult issue” facing math education at public schools is how to create such divisions.

“Kids know what group they are in—even if it is the blue birds or the black birds,” Eich said, referring to the different code names teachers sometimes use to differentiate academic levels. “The way I see it is that I want to put off the moment [of telling students] ‘you’re not good enough’ for as long as possible.”

Committee members also discussed the need for more creativity in teaching math to children. Nat Stahl—representing the nonprofit math education organization, The Math Project—emphasized the need for math “to be a discussion of ideas rather than development of skills.”

“Teachers have to be ready to take these questions, test it out rather than just say yes or no and move on because you have better fish to fry,” he added.

—Staff writer Linda Zhang can be reached at

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