Kids are being pushed into accelerated classes-and some parents and educators say it's time to put on the brakes.
Rather, teachers need to devise strategies to help students learn what they’re missing, administrators say. B-CC’s Lerman and other teachers disagree. “I shouldn’t, at the high school level, need to show [students] how to add two fractions together,” Lerman says.
Along with student readiness problems, middle and high school teachers take issue with the algebra curriculum itself. Revised nearly a decade ago to meet the criteria of the state’s high school assessment test (HSA), the curriculum has been “watered down” to create access for more students, they say. “They’ve taken out most of the square roots” and other important objectives, says Russ Rushton, the longtime math resource teacher and department head at Walt Whitman. “That hurts us in the next course, geometry.”
Lang, the MCPS associate superintendent, says administrators recognize the problems with the Algebra I curriculum, “but as a system, our hands are kind of tied” because students need to be successful on the HSA or they don’t get credit for the course. To meet the test criteria, MCPS revised the Algebra I curriculum and added a unit on statistics, which meant other objectives had to be removed.
The first five units of the course focus on preparing for the HSA, according to Roberts, leaving just two units for what some teachers consider the “real algebra” required for students to be ready for geometry and Algebra II.
The push to increase the number of students taking algebra is just one symptom of a larger problem, critics of acceleration say.
“It isn’t just the school system. Really, it’s the culture,” says Ralph Bunday, a former math magnet teacher at Blair who retired two years ago after 45 years in the classroom. Bunday spent the previous school year helping out in algebra classes at Parkland Middle School in Rockville.
“We’ve got the idea that just because all people should have equal opportunities and all people should have equal treatment and equal courses, that anybody can handle algebra. It’s just another part of the craziness. We’re not all equal,” he says.
But administrators say schools must give students the opportunity to challenge themselves. They point to continuing efforts to screen children for acceleration based on standardized tests, mastery of grade-level objectives, teacher recommendations and social development.
“For each child, there will be some different things to be considered,” MCPS’ Roberts says.
“When the lightbulb goes [on] for some, it doesn’t for others—and we have to have those kids in mind,” says Michael Kryder, assistant principal at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda.
At Wyngate, Leister says her staff starts determining in first grade which students will benefit from acceleration. “What we try to do is just to provide a good foundation and love of mathematics, and you don’t want a kid bored,” she says.
Leister is more interested in making sure students are proficient in math than in meeting the school system’s targets, though. Because of that, she rejects the MCPS definition of a “C” as success.
“We’re conservative and we want kids to succeed with an ‘A’ or a ‘B,’” she says. “Beat me to death if I don’t meet the target. I’m not going to be driven by a number when a kid is involved. I don’t want him to drown. You don’t accelerate if he can’t swim.”
Jenny Mitchell, president of the PTA at Chevy Chase Elementary School, says she decided to stop her son, now a fourth-grader, from studying math two grades ahead because he was having trouble keeping up. This year, he’ll be studying the fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum. “I’m more comfortable with this level,” she says.
At Westland Middle School in Bethesda, Principal Daniel Vogelman says teachers work with their colleagues at feeder elementary schools to make sure students don’t leave with gaps that will hinder them. In the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster, teachers in fourth, fifth and sixth grades meet to discuss what kids need to be learning, he says.
“That relationship helps strengthen the program,” Vogelman says.
Vogelman and other middle school administrators say they structure their algebra courses to meet the needs of their students. Some offer pre-algebra courses to prepare students, as well as enriched courses for those ready for more advanced work.
“We do teach the curriculum, but we also prepare them for Whitman,” Pyle’s Kryder says.
MCPS officials obviously have heard the complaints and change appears to be on the way. For more than 18 months, a group of educators, administrators and parents has been discussing how to improve the math program. The math working group is focusing on curriculum, acceleration, professional development and how instruction is delivered.
Before the working group issues its recommendations, it must wait to see how the state handles the Common Core State Standards, a set of benchmarks for teaching English and math in kindergarten through grade 12 released last spring by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The state is expected to revise its curriculum next year to align with the new standards. Then the working group will follow suit with the county curriculum. “Ultimately there will be changes to our curriculum,” Lang says. “It’s several years out, but we will see changes.”
One of the biggest changes likely will be more time spent on learning about numbers in elementary grades—covering fewer topics and slowing the pace so children can master skills before moving on. Roberts expects a revised curriculum would “focus instruction in each grade level around two to four really big ideas” in critical number skills, like multiplication and fractions. That may mean shifting some concepts, like probability, out of elementary school and into middle school.
“I think teachers will be happy with this,” Roberts says, “because it should allow them time to do what they say they haven’t had time to do: to focus on mathematics and go into it deeply.”
For some parents and teachers, change can’t come soon enough.
“Anything,” Lerman says, “will be better than where we are right now.”
Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, among other publications.