By CATHERINE SANDERSON
Published on June 11, 2010
The Amherst Regional Schools pride themselves on offering students a vast array of electives. And based on public comment at both School Committee meetings and in the press, these choices are prized by students, parents, teachers and community members.
Offering students choices about which electives to pursue clearly has benefits in terms of keeping students engaged in and excited about school. However, requiring students to make choices regarding their pursuit of core academic disciplines also has some risks, especially when students may lack a full understanding of the longer-term consequences of making a particular choice. For example, the math departments at Amherst Regional Middle and High schools both require students to make decisions that may limit their ability to take higher level math classes. It is critical that both students and families make these choices with a full understanding of these ramifications.
ARHS students must choose between two distinct types of high school math programs: a traditional sequence (algebra, geometry, algebra II, trigonometry, calculus) and a reform-math sequence (Interactive Mathematics Program). IMP is an alternative approach to teaching math that organizes math topics in four to six-week units around a central problem or theme.
Since it is quite difficult to move from the IMP track to the traditional sequence, it is critical that students have the information necessary to choose the right program. Although there has been no evaluation of the IMP program since it began at ARHS, research reveals that students attending California high schools using the IMP curriculum have lower math SAT scores than those using a traditional math sequence. Moreover, there are also concerns about whether IMP serves as an adequate preparation for college math. One UC Berkeley mathematics professor who studies math education has therefore recommended against IMP for students intending to go to college, particularly those potentially interested in quantitative fields.
ARMS also offers a choice between two types of math programs in seventh grade, when 12 and 13 year olds must decide whether to complete advanced mathematics problems (extensions), whose mastery enables students to enter eighth-grade honors algebra. Completing algebra in eighth grade is necessary for students who want to complete calculus during high school, and offering the opportunity to complete extensions is designed to theoretically make advanced math available to more students (and thereby close the achievement gap). However, in practice, students with parent/guardians who understand the importance of taking algebra in eighth grade are much more likely to opt for completing the additional work, and to receive assistance with completing such work if required. Mathematically adept students without this family support may therefore limit their possibilities in high school by choosing not to do extensions.
Other districts have taken different approaches that actually give students fewer choices, but may yield better results. For example, in Rockville Centre (New York), a diverse suburban district on Long Island, the superintendent decided to require all middle school students to take eighth-grade algebra. The results were dramatic: the percentage of students completing trigonometry increased, scores in AP calculus for all students increased, and more than three times as many African-American and Latino students now take higher level and honors math classes, substantially closing the gap with the white and Asian students. Rockville educators believe that requiring higher standards conveyed the message that all students could perform at an advanced level, and that in turn, students (especially students of color) rose to meet these higher expectations.
Allowing students to make academic choices is empowering. However, it also magnifies the impact of inequality in family resources and educational backgrounds. As part of the upcoming review of the mathematics curriculum in Amherst, we need to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of both the IMP and extensions programs so that we can adequately advise students about both the benefits and costs of their choices, and ideally help all students make choices that expand rather than limit their possibilities.
Catherine A. Sanderson is a professor at Amherst College, and a member of the Amherst and Regional School Committees. This views expressed in this column are hers alone, and not those of the School Committees.
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.