Connecticut District Retools High School Math Instruction

Classrooms go digital with Web-based instruction and a custom curriculum.

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Mathematics teachers in one coastal Connecticut school district were frustrated with students' inability to retain what they learned in Algebra I and apply it to Algebra II, so they decided to approach high school mathematics instruction in a new way. The teachers shrank the number of topics covered in each course by about half and published their custom-made curriculum online last fall, the New York Times reports.

The new curriculum's lessons were written by Westport, Conn., teachers and sent to HeyMath! of India, a company that adds graphics, animation, and sound to the lessons before posting them on the Web. But teachers say the new curriculum is as much about bringing classroom instruction into the digital age as it is about having the opportunity to teach students fewer concepts in greater depth.

Westport's decision to rewrite its math curriculum is part of a growing trend to re-evaluate "mile-wide, inch-deep" instruction. In 2006, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics pushed for more basic math skills instruction, and two years later a federal panel of investigators appointed by then President George W. Bush also urged schools to whittle down their elementary and middle school math curricula.

Though Westport's new instruction model is less than a year old, school officials say the less-is-more approach has already shown promising results. Math teachers report that in-class review is less necessary, standardized test scores have improved, and more students have enrolled in advanced math classes. But in spite of its success, Westport is among a minority of school districts nationwide that have even considered altering their curricula so radically. Most districts fear that cutting back on the number of topics covered will put students at a disadvantage on standardized tests.

Hank Kepner, resident of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, says Westport is the only district he knows of that has tried to write its own math curriculum, adding that most districts choose their math curricula from a group of prepackaged options. "I give them kudos for trying it," he says. "But I'm worried that not many districts will have the amount of support needed to pull off a new curriculum and sustain it."

So far, students have responded to the new curriculum favorably. Seventeen-year-old Jahari Dodd says he considered the online lessons a nice change of pace from traditional textbook-centric math instruction. "I'm much more of a visual learner," he says. "If I can't see it or have some kind of image with it, it's much harder to grasp."

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