My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Math in Other Districts

Given the interest in my recent posting on science courses and sequence in other districts, I've now compiled some similar data on math in other districts.

Comparison Districts Used

I have specifically chosen to focus on the 11 districts chosen by the School Committee this year as our comparison districts. I have also noted whether these districts are part of the MSAN network and whether have been identified as leading high schools by Newsweek and/or US News and World Report). The US News and World Report list specifically only includes schools in which low income, Black, and Hispanic students are performing better than the state average for such students, and thus schools on this list seem to be doing a pretty job of challenging ALL students (not just white and/or wealthy kids).

These districts are: Brookline, MA (MSAN, US News); Chapel Hill, NC (MSAN, Newsweek, US News), Evanston, IL (MSAN, Newsweek, US News); Framingham, MA (MSAN, Newsweek), Montclair, NJ (MSAN, Newsweek), Newton, MA (Newsweek, US News), Northampton, MA;
Oak Park, IL (MSAN, Newsweek); Princeton, NJ (MSAN, Newsweek, US News); Shaker Heights, OH (MSAN, Newsweek); White Plains, NY (Newsweek).

The "how are we doing subcommittee" gathered selected these districts to be somewhat similar to Amherst in terms of our population and aspirations. Four of the districts are largely wealthy (Brookline, Newton, Oak Park, Princeton), three have substantially more low income students than Amherst (Evanston, Shaker Heights, White Plains), and four of these districts are quite similar to Amherst in terms of the percentage of low income students (Chapel Hill, Framingham, Montclair, Northampton).

Questions Asked

I contacted each of the districts (the superintendent, director of curriculum, or math heads, depending on the district) and asked the following questions:

1. At what grade does math grouping occur, and what factors are used to determine grouping?
2. What percent take 8th grade algebra (and of these, what percent take 8th grade algebra and are then ready to move on to geometry in 9th)?
3. Do you offer AP statistics?
4. What percent of students take calculus?

I received responses from most districts (at least on some, if not all of these questions), and these answers are summarized in this report. I have included information about Amherst first in each response to help with making comparisons.

1. At what grade does math grouping occur, and what factors are used to determine grouping?

Amherst begins homogenous grouping at Grade 8 based on whether students choose to do extensions (additional homework as well as in class instruction and assessments), scores on these assignments, test data, and teacher recommendations.

Most schools begin homogenous grouping at Grade 6, which is when middle school begins in most districts (Chapel Hill, Evanston, Montclair, Oak Park, Princeton, White Plains). There were four exceptions to this pattern: Shaker Heights groups students as of 5th grade (they have a separate 5th/6th school), Newton and Northampton group students as of 7th grade, Framingham keeps all students in heterogeneous math classes through 7th grade (with the exception of about 2% of the students who take algebra in 7th grade), and Brookline maintains heterogeneous grouping until 9th grade (however, this district uses a rigorous curriculum in which all students take 8th grade algebra and then move to 9th grade geometry).

In addition, some schools provide opportunities for homogenous math grouping earlier than middle school. For example, Chapel Hill provides both heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping in math in elementary school, depending on the material, as does Shaker Heights.

2. What percent of students take 8th grade algebra (and of these, what percent take 8th grade algebra and are then ready to move on to geometry in 9th)?

In Amherst, roughly 35% of 8th graders take algebra, and most of these take 9th grade geometry. Two to three % of 7th graders take algebra, and then geometry in 8th grade.

These districts vary considerably in terms of the percent of students who take 8th grade algebra and are ready to move on to 9th grade geometry.

In some districts, most or all 8th graders take algebra and move on to geometry in 9th grade (80% in Chapel Hill; 80 to 85% in Princeton; 100% in Brookline).

In other districts, approximately half of 8th graders take algebra and then move on to geometry (50% in Framingham; 55% in Newton).

In still other districts, fewer than half of students take 8th grade algebra and move on to 9th grade geometry (34% in Evanston, 25% in Oak Park, 30% in Shaker Heights, 33% in White Plains).

In several districts, a relatively sizeable proportion of 7th graders take algebra and then as 8th graders take geometry or algebra II (10 to 15% of kids in Evanston; 15 to 20% in Princeton; 13 to 15% in Chapel Hill).

Information on the percentage of students in 8th grade algebra was not available from Montclair and Northampton.

3. Do you offer AP statistics?

Amherst Regional High School does not offer AP Statistics.

All of these comparison districts offer AP statistics. Some students at these schools take both AP Calculus and AP Statistics, and others choose one of these two courses.

4. What percent of students take calculus?

In Amherst, about 90 students (of 300) take a calculus course (30%).

Most schools report that between 30 and 50% of students take calculus (Brookline: 35%-38%; Chapel Hill: 40 to 50%; Evanston: 28%; Framingham: 30 to 40%; Newton: 53 to 55%; White Plains: 20%). However, in all of these other districts, students could take calculus in 12th grade but instead opt for AP Statistics (as repeatedly noted in the responses).

Information on the % of students who take calculus was not available from Princeton, Montclair, Shaker Heights, Northampton, and Oak Park.

This comparison yielded several important findings.

Most school districts (6 of the 11) start math grouping at 6th grade (the start of middle school in most districts). Two districts group at 7th grade, and 1 district groups at 5th grade. Amherst and Framingham are the only school districts that provide no substantial math grouping until 8th grade (with the exception of Brookline, in which all 8th graders take algebra and move on to 9th grade geometry). Amherst does, however, group a very small percentage of students in 7th grade: 2 to 3% of students skip 7th grade math altogether and move into honors algebra.

Grouping is determined, in virtually all schools other than Amherst, by some combination of math grades, teacher recommendations and state/local testing scores (with teachers monitoring the student progress to help in placement especially in moving students up to a more challenging course). Amherst is the only district that also makes placement decisions based on whether students choose to participate in instruction on advanced material and perform additional homework as well as their scores on that homework.

The percentage of 8th graders taking algebra in Amherst compares favorably or at least equally to some of these districts (Evanston, Oak Park, Shaker Heights, White Plains). However, our percentage is lower than that in the over half of these districts (Brookline, Chapel Hill, Framingham, Newton, Princeton).

Amherst is the only district that does not offer AP Statistics.

The percentage of our students who graduate having had calculus compares favorably or at least equally to many of these comparison districts (Evanston, White Plains), although is lower than that in other districts (Brookline, Chapel Hill, Framingham, Newton).

Although one explanation for the overall lower math performance in Amherst (including the percent who take 8th grade algebra, the percent who take calculus in high school, the absence of an AP statistics course) compared to many of these districts is that our district is demographically different (e.g., poorer), the data does not tend to support this explanation.

Chapel Hill and Framingham are very similar to Amherst in terms of the percent of low income students, but both have a higher portion of kids taking 8th grade algebra and both of these districts offer AP Statistics.

Of the districts which are most similar to Amherst in terms of the percentage of students finishing 8th grade algebra (Evanston, Shaker Heights, White Plains), three of these districts have a higher % of low income students than Amherst.

In sum, these findings suggest that a smaller proportion of students in Amherst take 8th grade algebra than students from other districts who serve similar populations. To me, this raises the issue of whether the "extensions" model is a better approach to preparing students to take 8th grade algebra than the grouping approach used by most other districts prior to 8th grade.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous as I am, I want to THANK YOU for your work on this survey and for sharing your results. Your efforts are above and beyond what we should expect from an SC member and I for one thank you for your service. Also, I want to be sure to thank you before you hear from the writers who attack your approach, your initiative and your willingness to bring information out that can be used to thoughtful discussion. Thank you.

Ed said...

four of these districts are quite similar to Amherst in terms of the percentage of low income students (Chapel Hill, Framingham, Montclair, Northampton).

I argue that one needs to be cautious comparing Framingham to Amherstlike this for three reasons.

First, Framingham State College is a much smaller school influencing a much larger community, albeit still technically a town. FSC has 1500 students in six dorms while UMass has about five times that living in SouthWest alone. The entire Framingham student body is the size of the UMass GRADUATE student body - and UM graduate students are largely invisible in a sea of undergrads...

Second, long-term residents of Framingham openly speak of the town having been "cut in half by the highway" - the same Route 9 goes through Framingham except that it is a four-lane limited access divided highway that literally cuts through all the hills. And gave the town all the problems related to close contact with a busy highway and the related commercial development.

Third, and most important, Framingham has a significant population of illegal immigrants, largely from Brazil. While Amherst also has an illegal population, I think that you will find that the majority of the Amherst minority population is both here legally and on a track to citizenship.

What this means is that you will have statistical variance in comparing these two communities. These three differences will challenge the Framingham schools in a way that the Amherst schools will not be; further, parents with money will have far more choices of private schools with less hassle of transportation.

Hence if Amherst and Framingham are equal on something, Amherst is actually *behind* because the two school systems are not starting from the same place. You do what you can with statistics, in something like this your population sample is going to be so small that there will be inherent variance anyway, but I did think that this footnote is worth making.

Ed said...

However, in all of these other districts, students could take calculus in 12th grade but instead opt for AP Statistics (as repeatedly noted in the responses).

There is an important aside here relative to the general importance of AP classes, as well as the oh-so-politically-incorrect "Advanced Placement" offerings.

First, those who have not read Alan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind should. And as the undergraduate experience increasingly gains a focus similar to grad school, where students by necessity focus more on their vocational interest, Bloom's (and Newman's) concept of teaching a universal knowledge of humanity gets increasingly shifted to the high school curriculum.

I had Calculus in high school and haven't touched it since - although it was quite helpful in understanding my economics course. Likewise I had Psychology in high school and haven't formally touched it since, although it has been quite helpful in dealing with aspects of my Student Affairs, Child Development & Educational Theory classes. And it would have been nice to have had Statistics in High School because I could have earned my Doctorate - in Education - without ever having taken any course in statistics - ever...

Likewise, I haven't touched a Life Science since High School, although that background is invaluable in going through the ClimateGate emails (UMass is very much involved in this mess). I also haven't touched (as an academic course) Shakespeare or poetry or music or art since K-12.

I was certified to teach high school Social Studies based upon my *high school* AP US History course...

My point is that with the exception of the statistically irrelevant fragment that attends places like Amherst and Williams, the high school is the last exposure to truly universal knowledge that ALL children will get, including those going on to college.

I will be called a racist and worse for saying this, but we need to have AP and upper-level offerings available to those students able & interested in taking them because for many it is the last time that they ever will have the opportunity to learn the subjects.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, I really appreciate this. I would also like to add that the problems with math in Amherst begin in the elementary schools; the regional schools are not just to blame. My teenagers (who are doing the advanced level math) still have to stop and do "finger math" sometimes for the basic multiplication tables and when faced with a long division problem, freeze up. We need to work to improve math instruction from day one. I agree that math "tracking" at an earlier grade would be beneficial to all but I also think that every single child needs to see a more rigorous math curriculum in the elementary schools.

I was also wondering, do we have a lower math graduation requirement than other schools? I know some others in the area require three years of math and mandate that algebra and geometry be two of those three years.

Rick said...

Catherine: thanks for this - fantastic data to have.

Can you elaborate on what you think about extensions?

Is the following a good thing for a bad thing?

”Amherst is the only district that also makes placement decisions based on whether students choose to participate in instruction on advanced material and perform additional homework as well as their scores on that homework.”

Also, what are your thoughts about traditional math versus reform math? And where does Amherst sit on the spectrum (very reform, very traditional, in between, depends on the school, etc.)?

Rick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed said...

To me, this raises the issue of whether the "extensions" model is a better approach to preparing students to take 8th grade algebra than the grouping approach used by most other districts prior to 8th grade

Agreed! And it raises a much larger issue, that of quantity versus quality of student work.

What Amherst has is essentially "placement by ordeal" - those who are willing to do an extra volume of work (for, as I understand it, no tangible reward, e.g. better grade) gain access to the upper level courses.

Those who please the teachers get placed into the upper track, while there may be a correlation between that group and those with the *ability* to perform at the higher level, there is not a direct relationship.

This does three things. First, it very much raises the social justice issue of wealth and family background - the children of professors are told that they must do the extensions and hence do, the children of the single mother living in Southpoint aren't and don't.

Second, it selects on the basis of interest and not aptitude. There is a VERY BIG difference between the two, and nothing will destroy interest quicker than being tossed into a group beyond the child's ability. I have seen this happen with girls and honestly wonder if the alleged bias against them in the math & sciences is actually a bias in favor of them, pushing them into courses beyond their ability because they sit quietly, write neatly and please the largely female elementary teaching cadre.

Third, what you do with a system like this is have a specific year determine the rest of the child's educational career - and largely future life. It is not uncommon for a child to slide into an educational nadar in Middle School and then get his or her act together for high school.

It isn't just puberty (although that should not be ignored) as much as Grades 4-8 are where parents start getting divorced, start getting into substance abuse issues (often with related legal consequences), in the current economy you have people loosing houses to the bank as well.

When I was driving a school bus one spring, there was a 5th Grade girl whose mother could often be seen passed out on a front lawn, not her own front lawn - the children already on the bus quite eager to point out both facts to me.

I had already noticed what they hadn't - her father literally chasing her out the door one morning with her shoes - and more often than not Bus 15 was a few minutes late because I took a circutius route that looped me back by her house a second time as I really did want to get her to school if possible.

I don't know what - if anything - her teachers knew. Regardless her academic performance had to have suffered that spring. As did that of the young man who was kind enough to give me a verbatim quotation of what his father had said the prior night when the police had come to arrest him.

You simply can not sentence a child to a life of medocrity because he or she is having a bad year - it usually isn't even the child's fault. And I really do wonder how many of the SPED students in the self-contained classrooms evolved as a consequence of tracking students "down & out" in situations like this.

Likewise, how many children, already bored out of their minds by work below their ability level, possibly with ADD/ADHD as well, are going to be eager to do more of what they consider to be boring sophomoric busywork?

Two approaches I have seen are first to permit the taking of Geometry and Advanced Math together which allows a student who wasn't on the advanced track to jump onto it in the 10th grade.

The other approach is basic democracy - there are rigid tracks but any student can take classes at any ability desired. The district makes no promise that the student will pass the course. And I have seen kids that little was expected of take courses that no one thought they had a chance in and actually do quite well.

Anonymous said...

Will this be the death knell for 7th grade extensions? Or will Extensions continue its vampire-like existence -- despite all the facts, data and anecdotal evidence on the many, many problems of students with it?

Ed said...

Catherine - while you are dealing with Math, the untold scandal is not that a significant percentage of the elementary school teaching cadre (statewide) are not good in Math but just how many and just how bad they are.

Last spring, only 27% of the teachers taking the Math test passed it -- which means that almost 3/4 *failed* it! And one could project this backwards and presume similar failure rates from teachers educated in the same manner in prior years.

The type of person who goes into elementary education tends to be weak in Math/Science -- and often very good in creative arts and such which you will see reflected in their classrooms. But it doesn't address the skill deficits here...

Now maybe Amherst hires teachers who calculate hexidecimals for evening entertainment - or maybe the weaknesses of K-6 teachers statewide is reflected in the Amherst schools as well. I suspect the latter...

And I know that there is money involved and not a lot of it around (although we do have lots of folk in town who like to write grants) -- maybe a paid 3-4 week intensive skill boosting seminar (voluntary) for the K-6 teachers is in order.

Anonymous said...

Catherine. I only wish my kids could have benefitted from all the work you've done as a school committee member. Like the first poster wrote, you've gone above and beyond. We're very lucky to have you on the school committee. Thank you. Ali

Abbie said...

Hi Catherine,

Thanks for all your efforts! You go the extra mile and more.

I have to wonder though if our MS/HS kids are in general prepared for more challenging math given the really poor (in my opinion) math education they get in our ES. While I understand some kids will be prepared, perhaps through the intervention of invested parents, I don't know whether our elementary curriculum is conducive to achievement for most kids (who don't get the extra home/tutor help).

So I guess what I am getting at is priorities/best strategy. Do we first build up the ES math curriculum, first build up the MS/HS math curriculum, or do both at the same time? All with increasingly limited resources, although its unclear to me that it should cost more to "fix" the ES math.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:59 - thanks for the kind words -- I am hopeful that this type of information will be helpful as we think about where we want the district to be headed, and how to get there.

Ed (at 5:38 am) - you make an excellent point -- Framingham has a much higher % of low income kids and I'd imagine fewer kids who have parents affiliated with colleges/universities.

Ed (at 6:33) - I think this is a very good point as well -- taking AP/advanced kids is good for all kids, regardless of whether they use that info to get into college or major in that field. Another reason we should think about what classes we offer (and don't) and why.

Anonymous 6:33 - I agree that the issues begin in elementary school -- and probably LEAD to other problems later on (e.g., lack of kids in 8th grade algebra, etc.). I am preparing a blog post now that examines elementary school math, so you should look for that one. And yes, you are also right about the number of years required of math -- we require 2 years of HS math ... most other districts require three.

Rick - glad you found this helpful! To answer your questions -- I think extensions is a bad idea, motivated by the best of intentions. I'm going to elaborate on this in a future blog post, but briefly, I am always going to be skeptical of any thing that Amherst does that NO ONE else is doing (e.g., 9th grade required ecology, 7th grade math extensions, heterogeneous AP English). This may be seen as "teacher bashing" but I think we need to recognize that there are good and smart and dedicated teachers across Massachusetts and the US ... and that if ALL of them have come to a different decision about how to teach something, we may well have something to learn from them (and we may not have to recreate the wheel). To me, it is like if I go to Cooley Dickinson because I have breast cancer -- I don't want to be told "well, our doctors all got together and decided that the best treatment for your cancer is leeches -- even though people at Mass General tend to use radiation and people at Sloan Kettering tend to use chemotherapy. We are therefore going to go with leeches." I'd like the treatment that has been tried out on other people FIRST! That is basically my feeling about extensions (but again, I have a long blog post I'm working on that goes through what I see as the problems with this).

In terms of where we are in the "math wars" -- we are at the very, very reform end of the continuum -- the elementary schools all use a curricula called Investigations. It is at one end of the spectrum. My thought about where to be is complex, because again, I don't know anything about elementary school math -- so, I think we look to the research on this -- and my next blog post is going to share a lot of info about this.

Ed said...


If this is what I think it is, I came across it in my math methods classes and while I encourage my students to disagree with me, my sarcastic description of it being "Calculus for Third Graders" kinda let everyone know what I thought of it.

If this is what I think it is, it literally is Calculus for third graders. They bring in principles of Calculus at the third grade level and it is kinda like the initial version of whole language. The rationale in both cases is let's throw the advanced stuff at the children to gain their interest so that they are willing to learn the boring basics as tools to facilitate dealing with the more advanced fun stuff.

If you have upper middle class children who come from households with educated parents, this probably works. "Write like you talk" works great if you have parents who have been correcting grammar mistakes since the children first started talking -- it doesn't work so well for children of parents who themselves are not well educated.

Over the holiday, I met a 3-year-old who referred to a cookie as "hexaginal." Her mother is high school math teacher and I have no doubt has been using terms like that since the child was born. The average single mother in Southpoint probably doesn't even know what a hexaginal is....

And this, folks, is the inherent social justice issue in all of this...

The old (and boring) linear approach to teaching math was to teach numbers, counting, number sets, addition (subtraction), multiplication (division), and then algebra, geometry and trig. The new approach is to throw absolutely everything at the kids and hope that they can learn something.

There are merits to both approaches, but you kinda need a background in the basics before you start trying to understand what Calculus really is. And yes, I have said the same thing about the 9th Grade science requirement -- you really need a background in Biology and Chemistry before you really understand anything (other than political views) about Ecology....

Caren Rotello said...

Investigations Math is definitely not calculus or rocket science in disguise. It's not even fractions. My third-grader is doing endless addition problems (easy ones that are virtually identical to one another), essentially no subtraction, and absolutely no multiplication, division, or fractions.

The research on this curriculum is depressing. There are much better options available.

And to Catherine: Let me join the chorus of thanks -- I really appreciate your efforts to make our schools better!

Abbie said...

Hi Catherine,

what would be the process through which the curriculum would change? Who is the person/people in charge that make these decisions? Who do we go to either individually or as a group to get some change?

Caren's description of the 3 grade math, at least at WW, is entirely correct. Who's decision was it that the vast majority of the instructional time (almost the entire day as we've experienced for 1-3rd grade) would be spent endlessly composing at the expense of math among other topics. This seems to be an intentional pedagogy. Who thought it up and is there any rationale for it?

Are these questions that concerned parents ought to press aggressively at SC mtgs? Is that the way to go?

I see that there is a lot of complaints on this blog about the curriculum in the ES, the MS, and the HS but is anyone listening? Anyone that actually has the power to change it? I guess after now 4 years in the ES school and having seen absolutely no efforts made to improve the curriculum, I have to wonder what would it take?

If parents aren't pissed about the math curriculum then they aren't paying attention.

Changing the curriculum isn't something that necessarily has any budget impact.

Anonymous said...

One of my concerns about going back to all this tracking, whether in MS math or HS English, is whether we will be open to a lawsuit again. The school district LOST the lawsuit to the NAACP in the early 90's and much of our current structure is the result of this. We were found guilty of "de facto segregation" and whether you agree or not with the court ruling, that was the result. Lawsuits are expensive to fight.

Joel said...

Anon 7:48 wrote:
"The school district LOST the lawsuit to the NAACP in the early 90's and much of our current structure is the result of this."

I don't think that that is accurate. Could someone with access to the details chime in here?

Here's what a lawyer in town told me -- and she didn't have access to all the details, but she did search the appropriate data bases: she found no evidence of a court case.

She believes, again without knowing all the details, that some people in town threatened a law suit and the town caved.

If the courts had actually ruled against the schools, then the NAACP would have moved systematically against all the towns that had similar policies as Amherst. That didn't happen.

There's a lot of mythology about the benefits and detriments of tracking that we should cleared up. I think some systems work and some are quite bad. Maybe the old Amherst system was poorly done. Again, I just don't know.

The other bit of mythology, I'm told, is that we can't do it because a court ruled against us. I'm pretty sure that that isn't true.

Again, we need to hear from someone with intimate knowledge of exactly what happened around the case.

Debbie Gabor said...

Catherine, Joel, and Others,

I don't know whether there was an actual NAACP lawsuit, and would love to learn more about what really happened.

Meanwhile, here is a paper that summarizes the results of two other "tracking" lawsuits. It's an old study of even older cases, but gives some idea about the equity issues involved.

Joel said...

Debbie, thanks. That's very interesting stuff.

The paper points out that "tracking" in the sense of making an early decision about a student's ability and then keeping that student in a track is problematic and that makes sense.

Having fluidity in a system with differing levels of classes strikes me a as a good idea and one that seems to be supported by the literature I've read via my grad student.

Ed said...

My bad...

Investigations Math is definitely not calculus or rocket science in disguise. It's not even fractions. My third-grader is doing endless addition problems (easy ones that are virtually identical to one another), essentially no subtraction, and absolutely no multiplication, division, or fractions.

Like "Democratic" and "democratic", or "Liberal" and "liberal", words do not always mean the same thing even if the same word is used. And what I call "Calculus for Third Graders" does use some form of the word "investigate."

My bad....

And one of my students made what I considered a viable argument for this, I disagree with her but her points do have merit.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Ed - the key thing you wrote is that the extensions model is tracking by choice -- and that is very dangerous. I will certainly insist that all of my kids do extensions - I have no idea whether all of my kids (three) would be placed into a higher math track. This is one of the unintended consequences of this model as I describe in a blog post I just did.

Anonymous 8:10 - I believe we need to end extensions. But I believe doing so would require support of a majority of the members on the regional SC, and likely the superintendent. I don't know where others members of the SC stand on this issue, nor do I know where the superintendent stands on this issue. This would be a good question to ask all SC candidates -- it would also be good for parents and community members to share their views with the SC and superintendent. Remember, I have one vote on a 9-person committee ... would need at least four others to support such a change.

Ed (at 10:59) - I agree that math/science may not be the favorite subjects of many elementary school teachers -- which is all the more reason we owe it to them, and to our kids, to choose a curriculum that really works! My next blog post covers this issue (and yes, I think offering summer training in math -- optional - is a good idea, but also expensive).

Ali - thanks for your kind remarks about my SC service. I've received a fair amount of criticism recently from some community members for doing this blog (which some have described as "creating negativity in the schools"), so I'm glad to know that others have found this blog useful.

Abbie - thanks for the kind words -- and read my next blog post re. how to solve the problem (which yes, needs to start with elementary school math). I believe we need to do a lot of things RIGHT NOW to improve the situation, since we don't get to redo these years for kids currently in our schools (and say you are just out of luck unless you are a kindergartener). I also believe that resources are NOT the issue -- in fact, having poor K to 5 math instruction probably costs resources in terms of having to provide extra intervention support through K to 12 as kids don't have a strong sense of basic math skills.

Ed (at 8:29) - nope, this isn't investigations, which is a much fuzzier curriculum ... very reform math!

Caren - I agree that we have better options. I hope we start using them. You will, I believe, like my next blog post!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Abbie (at 11:34) - so, I laughed when I read your post about how to make a change in the math curriculum, because I still have no idea. Here is what I've tried (and hasn't worked): in December of 2006, I met with a group of parents (who contacted me with concerns about math), and we wrote a letter to Jere Hochman. These parents included math/engineering parents at U Mass with kids in MS and ES at the time who had these concerns. We met with Jere and Andy Churchill (January 2007) to share our concerns. Jere appointed a math review council, which I was appointed to, and this met probably 4 to 6 times from May 2007 through May 2009. This group (which included teachers, parents, administrators) basically did nothing -- a report was written of some survey data (see my next blog post) but no other curriculum were ever reviewed, no problems with our current curriculum were ever examined, and basically it was a complete waste of time (sorry to be so negative) in terms of implementing any change in the district (although the group did recognize a need for a MS math textbook, which we had NEVER had and a textbook, Impact, was chosen by a curriculum committee of teachers/administrators in May of 2008 to be used in 7th and 8th grade -- so that was a good thing).

So, after my experience with the meeting and then a year on that council, it became clear that these efforts weren't working. Thus, I ran for SC. I have now been on SC for 1 1/2 years, and in that time, I've learned that I can't do anything unless I have support of other SC members ... and it just isn't clear whether other SC members share my views. On the elementary level, there was (finally) recognition that the elementary school math curriculum needed to be reviewed, so that has now been added as a superintendent's goal (thanks largely to the failure of 3 of our 4 schools on the math MCAS in 2009). But on the regional level, I'm just not sure who supports a comprehensive review of the math program (e.g., extensions) and thus whether that could be changed.

In terms of what parents can do, here are my suggestions.

1. Email the SC and the superintendent to share your views.
2. Come to SC meetings and share your views.
3. Elect SC members who share your views.

The SC controls policy, so we could have a policy on when grouping occurs in math and/or the types of ways curricular decisions are made (e.g., using data, comparing other districts). The superintendent ultimately controls curriculum, but he is evaluated by the SC (so an SC that was dissatisfied with a curriculum could communicate that to him). Is that helpful?

Anonymous said...

Very distressing to hear about the committee on the math curriculum. Very distressing.

Anonymous said...

I meant to post this yesterday but can't find it, my apologies if it's a duplicate.

I've been around here a long gime and have hope that after so many years that perhaps we have a SC and Superintendent who can distinguish the differences between ability grouping and tracking.

And if their evaluation determines that ability grouping is beneficial and is not discriminatory/illegal, put it back into place.

I could not at the time and to this day cannot conceive that placing students into classes based upon their demonstrated level of achievement is discriminatory as long as:
there is a method to ensure that students are evaluated by subject for each class for each semester.

In fact, to make it even less problematic, make it a school policy that students/parents could still choose a different class with understanding that the achievement level assessment may demonstate one level but students can sign up for any level they want.

Maybe that's the crux, renaming ability grouping to achievement grouping....

Students that need remedial help or basic help are placed at such a disadvantage when the only options are standard or advanced & honors courses.

The only alternative appears to be IEP's...costly IEP's