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April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

Addressing Parents' Concerns Over Curriculum Reform

When introducing a new mathematics curriculum in its middle schools, an Iowa school district anticipated parents' misgivings, addressed them early, and made parents its allies in reform.

"How will the parents react?" is one of the first questions raised whenever changes in schooling are planned. Implicit in this question is the understanding that, while parental support will not guarantee successful reform, the lack of support from parents can sabotage even the most well-intentioned project.
How, then, does a school build parent support? The best way is to anticipate parent concerns, attempt to understand them, and address them directly and soon. This is what one Iowa school district did when it field-tested an innovative middle school mathematics curriculum.
The Ames Community School District in Ames, Iowa, is one of the sites involved in field-testing a comprehensive curriculum for grades 5-8. Mathematics in Context embodies the content and teaching methods of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics and the Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics (NCTM 1989, 1991). The National Science Foundation, which is funding the five-year project, is supporting similar projects at the elementary and secondary levels.
Development of the Mathematics in Context curriculum began in 1992 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where project members are collaborating with staff from the Freudenthal Institute in Utrecht, The Netherlands. The 1993-94 school year was the first of two years of field testing for about half of the curriculum's 40 units. Although the Ames field test site involved only nine schools, the district's experiences were representative of what happened at other sites.

Not Your Mother's Mathematics

Both teachers and students in the Ames Community School District perceive Mathematics in Context as being very different from the middle school mathematics typically taught. The most obvious difference is a shift from the traditional emphasis on arithmetic procedures to an emphasis on helping students to develop flexible ways of thinking about numbers and number relationships. Each unit uses problem situations that are of interest to students.
Another important difference is that, because the emphasis is on flexible thinking, there are often several ways to solve a problem. Students are encouraged to use any strategy that makes sense to them. They are also expected to explain their strategies to the teacher and to one another, in writing and orally. Thus, students spend much of their classroom time working and talking with other students in groups, rather than working quietly by themselves, as they typically do with traditional curriculums.
There is one more major difference: The Mathematics in Context units are designed so that all students will be able to learn the mathematics. For this reason, students are not ability-grouped.
As children bring home questions, homework, and stories about what happened in mathematics class, parents become aware of just how different teaching approaches can be. And, naturally, they begin to think about what these differences mean for their children. Even when parents are properly informed ahead of time about the curriculum changes, concerns surface as the curriculum is implemented.
Participation in the Mathematics in Context field test was only one part of a systemic effort by the district to reform its mathematics curriculum. The district staff had been planning for reform since 1992, and it had already held seminars to introduce parents to the new mathematics standards.
At the outset of the field testing, the district selected a team of four teachers (one each from grades 5-8) to become teacher leaders. This team and two administrators attended a two-week summer leadership institute in Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about the curriculum's philosophy, content, and pedagogy. The teacher leaders were then charged with providing staff development experiences and support to other teachers in their district so that they too would be able to participate in the field test of the materials.

Five Kinds of Concerns

At the beginning of the school year, the district sent parents letters describing the project and requesting permission to share student work as a part of the data collection. Every school involved held meetings with parents to give them information and to address their concerns. As the program began, school staff kept an informal record of parents' questions and concerns, including those expressed at meetings, in telephone calls, interviews, and written surveys.
After a number of contacts with parents, the nature of their concerns became clear. Their various misgivings arose from different assumptions about the nature of the project, the nature of mathematics, and the role of schooling. Parents' worries were also rooted in the ways in which the community viewed teachers and the school district.
District officials began addressing these concerns by classifying them into five general categories, each of which called for a different type of response. The least serious concerns were those of parents wondering how to support the program. These were followed by concerns resulting from misinformation or no information, concerns about program implementation, and concerns about whether teachers or researchers could be trusted. Most serious were the concerns based on traditional beliefs about schooling.
We should point out that by degree of seriousness we are referring to the nature of the response required by the school district. All parent concerns are serious to the parents who have them, and we need to recognize and respect this. For a school district, however, some misgivings have more serious consequences if they are ignored or addressed inappropriately. In other words, if the district does not handle it in a timely and appropriate manner, a category two concern can quickly escalate into a category three or four concern.
Let's look more closely at these five categories and their implications for reform efforts elsewhere, as well as some practical suggestions for building parent support.

1. Concerns of Parents Who Support the Program

These are parents who have observed their child thinking differently about mathematics and who appreciate the complex tasks and the meaningful contexts used in the units. The problem is, they sometimes make requests that require substantially more work for the district. For example, some parents asked the district to conduct evening classes so that they could work through the 40 units and relearn the mathematics themselves. They thereby demonstrated a common concern of parents whose children are using an innovative curriculum: How can I help my child?
Such concerns are legitimate and basically supportive. If schools fail to respond to them, they can lose these parents' support. For ways to successfully involve parents and guardians in the mathematics education of their children, see the popular program called Family Math (Stenmark et al. 1986).

2. Concerns Resulting from Misinformation or No Information

These parents may have misunderstood the philosophy behind the problem-solving focus and be concerned about the lack of emphasis on the basics as they see them. For example, one student who had always had a hard time with mathematics was successful with Mathematics in Context. And, for the first time, he was happy about mathematics. His mother called the teacher and said, "We think it is great that you are working on Tom's self-esteem, but we think he needs to be challenged. He really needs to work on the basics." What the mother did not recognize was that the mathematics her son was learning was far more complex and powerful than arithmetic exercises.
To work effectively with such parents, administrators need to answer their questions, show them examples of student work, and help them see how the mathematical content is embedded in the problem-solving process. Administrators also need to give them information about how children who learn this mathematics are more apt to be successful later in school and on the job. Doing this takes time, but is well worth the effort. For the most part, as these parents develop a better understanding of the program, they become very supportive.

3. Concerns About Program Implementation

These concerns are valid and often surface because of errors that occur in implementing any new program. For example, during a classroom observation, a teacher repeatedly responded to her students' questions by saying, "You can figure this out for yourself. Go back to your desk and think about it a little longer."
This teacher mistakenly interpreted the emphasis on students' constructing their own strategies for solving problems as meaning that the teacher, as the facilitator, shouldn't offer any help or support. Parents of students in that classroom were justifiably concerned about their children's frustration. Clearly, this teacher needed more inservice training in questioning skills, student and teacher discourse, and the role of the teacher as facilitator. Fortunately, the district was able to provide this training.
Many such concerns arose as a direct result of the instructional changes required by the new curriculum. Teachers had to learn to teach in ways that they themselves probably never experienced as students. Because parents were unaware of the need to change teaching approaches, they were not always able to distinguish between issues of curriculum and implementation. As a result, they often blamed the materials. It was necessary to explain to these parents that the school was studying the teaching changes carefully and approaching the reform initiatives in a thoughtful manner.
When responding to parents with concerns about implementation, it is important to be candid when errors are made, to discuss how staff development is addressing these concerns, and to explain where members of the teaching staff are on their own learning curve. Researchers must explain to parents how both student progress and teacher progress are being monitored.

4. Concerns Based on Lack of Trust

Parents in this group believed philosophically in the changes, but were not convinced that the teachers could manage them. In addition, some parents did not trust the curriculum materials, and they were concerned that their children were being used for an experiment.
Such challenges can be very difficult for teachers to answer. They need support so that they do not have to defend programs before they have had enough experience and training to be comfortable in this role. Enthusiasm or commitment to a new program doesn't necessarily equip a teacher to persuade parents to trust both the materials and the school's ability to implement the program effectively. Teachers who are backed into corners by too many challenges of this sort may react by becoming disparaging of the curriculum materials, the staff development efforts, and the district's expectations.
In this project we found that the best way to dispel these concerns was to provide the parents with evidence that most teachers in the district supported the reform initiative and were working hard to implement it successfully.

5. Concerns Based on Traditional Beliefs About Schooling

These parents were concerned about the district's approach to curriculum and content, and the role of schooling in our society. They much preferred that mathematics be taught as it was when they were in school—as absolutes, based on rules and practiced by rote memorization and repetition. They saw the attempt to teach children to think critically and to develop their own strategies as an affront to the social order. Several parents felt that problem-solving approaches led students to think that they had more autonomy than they should in fact have.
It was difficult to work with this group. Strategies used in the first four categories only offended them and made them angrier. So far, we've found that the best approach is to recognize a parent's beliefs and attempt to arrive at a compromise for his or her own child.

Commonsense Strategies

An important lesson we learned in the first year of the field test is to anticipate parents' concerns and address them from the beginning. We suggest the following general approaches. Some are generic and apply to any reform effort; others relate more specifically to Mathematics in Context.
Be confident. Parents can tell when speakers are not sold on or unsure of the project they are promoting. Therefore, those who are most committed and convincing should describe the reform effort.
Treat parents as equal partners. The vast majority of parents, even those who object to your project, are concerned about their child's learning and welfare. Suggest ways they can help their child and their child's teacher. Give them the telephone number of an administrator they can call if they have questions or concerns. Provide opportunities for them to visit classrooms and participate in the mathematics activities. Above all, listen, take notes, and follow up.
Be honest. As with any new program, the researcher or teacher can't anticipate what will happen. So don't pretend that you can do so. If you've made a mistake or overlooked something, admit it and correct the situation.
Define accountability. When student participation is not optional, as was the case with Mathematics in Context, it is important to articulate the safeguards that have been put in place. Let parents know what you are doing to monitor the changes you're introducing and how you will know when something is going wrong.
Communicate effectively. Speak and write in plain language. Avoid jargon, and define terms when necessary. Use visual aids to convey complicated ideas, but make them readable (few things are more irritating than an overhead that cannot be read beyond the second row of seats). Encourage the media to publish articles about your project, including pictures of students working hard.
Select support people carefully. When local resource people are available and willing, don't bring in outsiders. On the other hand, recognize when an outside expert will carry more weight than a local self-styled prophet.
Do mathematics with parents. Prepare a set of favorite activities that you can draw from in order to illustrate important points. The activities should present a challenge, be representative of the curriculum, and have practical applications. When parents have difficulty with the activities, be prepared to show how children are successful with them, and highlight the different strategies students have developed.
Organize family math nights. Schedule these early in the school year along with regular open houses or parent conferences. They should involve active doing, not passive listening. Plan a variety of activities for different locations, and host an open forum where parents can ask questions (have someone record the questions, then follow up). At key points during the evening, you might use video footage of students actively working in classrooms.
Develop Family Involvement Packages. At least once a month, send parents, via their children, a written description of the mathematics to be learned over the course of the unit. Include activities that parents can do with their children at home. Build in a way for the finished activity to be brought back to school (for example, by grading the results as homework).
As we learn to welcome parent concern and involvement, other strategies for working with parents will become apparent. The important thing to remember is that parent concern is healthy. It is a sign that as educators, we are making an impact. If encouraged, parents can become our greatest ally in the reform effort.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, Va.: NCTM.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1991). Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics. Reston, Va.: NCTM.

Stenmark, J. K., V. Thompson, and R. Cossey. (1986). Family Math. Berkeley: Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California.

Margaret R. Meyer has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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