Jeffco Public Schools adopts 'illustrative math' learning style

The math curriculum encourages students to "use their current understanding of math, their lived experiences, and the world around them" to solve problems.
Illustrative Math
Posted at 8:25 PM, Sep 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-28 16:57:20-04

GOLDEN, Colo. — Jeffco Public Schools has adopted a new learning style of mathematics that emphasizes real-world application over rote memorization.

Instead of the many flash cards, times tables, and computation equations many likely remember from their math homework, students are instead given fewer problems and asked to explain in words how they reached their answer and why.

The program, called illustrative math, encourages students to “use their current understanding of math, their lived experiences, and the world around them as resources for problem solving,” according to a statement from Illustrative Mathematics.

The district began the transition to the new curriculum during the 2021-2022 school year, citing “inconsistent student achievement across the district” as the reason for a more uniform learning approach.

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Reception by students, parents and teachers has been mixed, according to several conversations with Denver7. Mom Kristen Rebmann said her sons, Ryan and Rayden, have lost interest in their math work as their equations have been replaced with word problems and writing. She said the district “went from one extreme to the other” in its approach to math.

“Most of the answers require them to write out why they think it is that way, or why they think it works or doesn’t work. But it’s not actual numbers on a piece of paper anymore,” Rebmann said. “They don’t get to practice the skills they’re learning repetitively enough for it to become a mastered skill that will stick with you forever.”

The district insists that math fluency is still central to instruction, but concepts will be better retained through illustrative mathematics. Deputy Superintendent Dr. Kym LeBlanc-Esparza, a former math teacher herself, said the vast majority of Jeffco schools have adopted the curriculum because of its efficacy.

“Our data tells us that our kids really struggled in past years with applying math to real-world situations, problem solving, knowing when to take that computation and apply it to a particular problem that they’re asked to solve,” LeBlanc-Esparza said. “And so, by taking illustrative math and teaching kids how to do that, we’re building their mathematical fluency along with their deeper understanding. And that’s what mathematically powerful students do.”

LeBlanc-Esparza pointed to a recommendation from the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics of illustrative math, and also said Jeffco schools have gained back a lot of ground lost during the pandemic. She credits the curriculum in large part.

“I think our teachers would have had to work a whole lot harder, and they would have had to build experiences that would take time and energy away from them being able to engage meaningfully with kids in the way that we want them to,” she said. “And so illustrative math has been an absolute component to making that happen. I have no doubt of that.”

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For her part, Rebmann said she does see positive aspects to the curriculum, in addition to her concerns.

“There are tons of benefits to illustrative math,” Rebmann stressed. “It’s one of those things — I don’t dislike it. I just think there needs to be supplementation.”

Rebmann has taken it upon herself to do just that, and has begun giving her sons extra math problems to do on top of their assigned homework. She hopes the district encourages and enables teachers to bring back some of the traditional math learning she remembers, in addition to this new learning style.

“They need to practice this stuff in order for them to master it,” she said.

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