September-October 2010 | Parenting

Math Problems

Kids are being pushed into accelerated classes-and some parents and educators say it's time to put on the brakes.

Nancy Feldman remembers trying to ease the anguish of a bright student as he struggled with high school-level geometry at Tilden Middle School several years ago. “He was literally having nightmares from taking honors geometry in eighth grade,” she says. “Honors geometry was meant to be a ninth-grade, 10th-grade course. He was feeling so pressured.”

In 2009, nearly 50 percent of the Rockville school’s seventh-graders and about 71 percent of its eighth-graders successfully completed Algebra I or a higher math as part of Montgomery County Public Schools’ (MCPS) push to have 80 percent of all eighth-graders successfully complete algebra by this year. Feldman, who has tutored dozens of kids in math, doesn’t understand why middle school students are being pushed to take courses once taught only in high school.

“Do we really need to do this?” she asks.

Eleven-year-old Eric Johnsen and his parents would answer yes. This past spring, Eric wrote a persuasive essay for a class assignment at Bethesda Elementary, saying there should be more advanced math for fifth-graders like him.

“It would kind of stop kids from growing bored and maybe insubordinate,” explains Eric, who studied seventh-grade math in fifth grade. “It would allow kids to do to the best of their ability what they can do.”

Acceleration—particularly in mathematics—is a hot topic among parents, teachers and administrators, as is evident in online chats and at bus stops and PTA meetings across the county. While some parents push for their children to take the most advanced classes available, including college-level courses in high school, others say they feel pressured to place their kids in classes they may not be ready to handle.

Todd Bromberg is a lawyer who moved his family from New York City to Bethesda in 2000 specifically for the Walt Whitman High School cluster. But he has been dismayed by a school system “so caught up in trying to satisfy this urge to have all kids be better than average.”

“I would not have put my children into this type of educational environment had I known this was the dynamic,” he says.

Barbara Leister, the longtime principal of Wyngate Elementary in Bethesda, remembers when county schools focused more on enrichment. “Now we’ve come to the point where we no longer enrich, we push,” she says.

That push gained momentum in 1999, when MCPS developed a strategic plan to improve student achievement by challenging more students to take advanced classes and attempting to close the learning gap between minorities and other students. Under the guidance of Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, school officials revamped the curriculum to provide more rigorous instruction and standardized material so students were learning similar lessons in a given year. The math curriculum was revamped after national research suggested students needed to be better prepared for advanced math in high school and college, according to MCPS officials. Today, students can follow one of many academic pathways in math, even skipping a year’s curriculum.

In the 2009 Maryland School Assessment test, nearly 84 percent of all students scored at the proficient or advanced level in math. Administrators point to that and other statistics as evidence that their approach is working.

In a message posted on the MCPS website in June, Weast noted that the overall “number of Advanced Placement exams taken by MCPS students has more than tripled over the past decade, and nearly three-quarters of those exams earned a [passing] score of 3 or higher.”

But nowhere is acceleration more focused—or more controversial—than in mathematics, where efforts to challenge students to do advanced work begin in kindergarten in some schools. When MCPS unveiled its Seven Keys to College Readiness in 2009, three dealt with math: taking advanced math by fifth grade, completing Algebra I by eighth grade with a “C” or higher and completing Algebra II by 11th grade with a “C” or higher.

As of this fall, 45 percent of fifth-graders were expected to be taking advanced math, and 80 percent of eighth-graders were expected to successfully complete Algebra I. The county was well on its way to meeting those goals last year: 48.8 percent of fifth-graders successfully completed advanced math, while 65.5 percent of eighth-graders successfully completed algebra.

For truly advanced students, acceleration can be critical, allowing many to take college-level math courses in high school.

“The best kids are still unbelievable,” says Susan Wildstrom, who teaches math to upper-level students at Walt Whitman. “I don’t know if we can ever accelerate them enough.”

But parents and teachers say other students are being pushed too far too fast, creating gaps in fundamental math skills that could lead to failure later on. More parents are hiring tutors to help their kids keep up, even in elementary school, which raises the issue of whether acceleration is working when students need so much support outside the classroom.

Deborah Lerman, who teaches math at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, says about 25 percent of her ninth- and 10th-grade honors Algebra II students hire tutors. “If they have to rely on tutors to get through honors math, I don’t think they’re really learning it,” she says.

The MCPS math curriculum is a big part of the problem, teachers and parents say. Its “mile-wide and inch-deep” approach forces teachers to scramble to cover too many topics, with little time for students to master critical skills, such as dealing with fractions, decimals and percentages, notes Dianne Stevens, who teaches algebra at Herbert Hoover Middle School in Potomac.

Students “have tremendous gaps and holes. They have a very weak understanding of fractions,” says Lesley Wagner, who teaches math in the Center for the Highly Gifted at Pine Crest Elementary School in Silver Spring. “If you don’t understand fractions, you aren’t going to do well when it comes to algebra.” And those gaps may widen when students skip a grade or tackle the curriculum of two grades within one year. “At the lower grades, if they do not learn the fundamentals with profound understanding, it will be a house of cards and it will crumble,” Wagner says.

The Montgomery County school system considers students proficient in a course if they master 70 percent of its objectives; teachers say that number should be closer to 85 percent.

“You do run the risk of accelerating students who may be borderline” in skills proficiency, says Erick J. Lang, MCPS associate superintendent of curriculum and instructional programs. But “we were really ready to take a little of the risk” to encourage acceleration for more students, he says. Teachers also complain that the math curriculum doesn’t address topics in a logical sequence. Students are “unable to apply ideas, and they see them as discrete topics and not a series of concepts,” Wagner says.

Educators blame this on the “spiral” nature of the curriculum in elementary grades, with learning objectives introduced one year, developed more fully the next, then “secured” the following year, without some students achieving proficiency. “We teach math like it’s so many little boxes [of information] that are unrelated to one another, so with every new objective, kids are back at square one,” Wildstrom says.

Perhaps the most vocal critic of the math curriculum is Eric Walstein, a teacher in the science, mathematics and computer science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. Walstein is dismayed by the lack of basic skills, including algebraic factoring, and the reliance on calculators by even his advanced students.

“The kids are learning almost nothing. If they can’t get it from a calculator, they know nothing,” says Walstein, who has had to teach Algebra II to freshmen enrolled in precalculus because they haven’t mastered the material in middle school. “Parents ought to be screaming bloody murder.” Algebra has become the lightning rod for many of the complaints. Although it has become a national mantra that children can master algebra in eighth grade, teachers see a different reality in the classroom.

They point out that students develop differently, and some may not be cognitively ready for algebra in middle school. “Just because you’re in eighth grade doesn’t mean you’re ready,” says Hoover’s Stevens.

“Some don’t know their multiplication tables. We see a weakness in fractions. They freak out when they see fractions.”

School administrators say knowing multiplication is no longer a requisite for students taking Algebra I. “They will have needs and gaps. That doesn’t mean they’re not ready to do algebra,” says Karen Roberts, MCPS acting supervisor for prekindergarten through 12th-grade mathematics. “A lot of my teachers disagree with me. Being able to be automatic with basic facts is a desired state. Unfortunately, the thing about that is some kids never become completely automatic. We wouldn’t want to deny them the thinking that algebra provides.”