Next year, students in Riverside Elementary School District 96 will be learning math in a very different way, a way that emphasizes student-centered learning. 

Last month the District 96 Board of Education unanimously voted to adopt a new math curriculum called Math in Focus for its elementary schools. The curriculum follows an approach to math developed in Singapore.

“It’s going to be more suited to what our students need,” said Merryl Brownlow, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in District 96. “This program is really going to address the rigor that District 96 students need.” 

The Math in Focus program stresses active learning by students and focuses on concepts before procedures. It encourages students to look for different ways to solve programs and focuses on teamwork and talking about math rather than rote learning.

“It is really student-centered and really has the students at the heart of the problem solving,” Brownlow said. “It’s a very different kind of teaching and learning.”

For the last two years the district has used a program called My Math. Last fall a 12-person committee was formed to review the math curriculum in the elementary schools. The committee vetted four different curricula, including My Math, and decided to pilot the Math in Focus curriculum for a couple of months this year. The Math in Focus curriculum was tried out in two classrooms at each grade level in February and March.

The reviews from both students and teachers who participated in the pilot were very positive.

“I think the new math program has been better than the old math because the old math program used to give too many hints to what the answer would be and that for me made it way too easy,” said one anonymous student reviewer whose class was part of the Math in Focus pilot. “The new math program still gives you hints but it doesn’t give the answer away or make it too easy to solve.”

Students seemed to like the challenge and the conceptual nature of the Math in Focus approach.

“I think that it’s harder than the old math program and I like the challenge and I think lots of other kids are liking the challenge,” wrote another anonymous student reviewer. “I can’t wait for more fun and challenging questions.”

The Math in Focus curriculum starts with concepts and then moves on the procedures. It aims to develop the critical thinking skills that are emphasized under the new Common Core state standards. The curriculum is more aligned with the Common Core standards than the current curriculum, the math committee said.

Student questioning and talking about math concepts is encouraged.

According to a survey of students who participated in the Math in Focus pilot this year, 71 percent found that Math in Focus made math more fun. Only 11 percent liked the old math curriculum better.

Forty-seven percent of students surveyed found Math in Focus easier than the current My Math curriculum, while 24 percent said that they found the program harder; 29 percent said the two programs were of equal difficulty.

Brownlow said that the Math in Focus curriculum and approach would mesh well with the Carnegie Learning math curriculum that was introduced at L.J. Hauser Junior High School this year. Carnegie does not publish a math curriculum for elementary students.

It will cost the district $221,538 to implement the Math in Focus curriculum. The largest part of the cost is $174,638 for the program materials, which is expected to be a one-time cost. 

An additional $41,000 will be spent on professional development to train elementary school teachers across the district how to teach the new curriculum.

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