Friday, September 5, 2008

Parents lobby to raise the education bar and face hurdles

This lengthy rant spotlights a front-line math skirmish that just played out in Rochester. It clearly shows the difficulty in trying to improve public education in Michigan. Identifying new curriculums is really the simple part of the battle. Educating and changing the attitudes of parents and teachers is the tougher part.

Just before the opening of school, the Rochester superintendent published an op-ed,

Rochester Eccentric: As school year dawns, recommit to educational excellence (08/31/08)

Mr. Pruneau advises:

“If you are a parent in the Rochester school system, I would ask you to make school the number one priority for your child. In the global society of today, we need to raise the bar for all of our students, but that means students will have to spend more time about school, take harder courses than they may want (that Advance Placement course is worth the extra effort), and don't let a day go by not asking your child what is going on in his/her school life.”

Heeding that call, mothers and fathers of 8th grade students did just that, requesting that the district place their children in a more rigorous math class, and thus preparing them for higher-level science and math classes down the road. The superintendent was responsive to parents and allowed the option.

I wrote about it in an opinion piece that ran today:

Oakland Press: Parents right to stand up to board (09/05/08)

(by the way, I did't write the headline! I would've called it "Parents stand up for increased rigor!")

The issue centers on basic Algebra, and the adopted changes in the Rochester math curriculum designed to increase rigor and, and align with state requirements.

The Algebra taught by Rochester last year is apparently closer to what the state calls “pre-algebra”. Students who took Rochester’s pre-algebra last year appear to be caught in what one mother dubbed a “math opportunity gap”, in which their skills fall somewhere between the “new” Pre-Algebra and the “new” Algebra 1.

The question is whether students should take the new pre-algebra, which will repeat some material, or if they should move ahead to Algebra 1, which is likely be a more challenging course.

In light of these changes, and hoping to expand their children's learning opportunities, parents asked for options, and the superintendent supported that idea.

However, it seems everyone didn’t get the superintendent’s “raise the bar” memo.

Eighth graders came home the first few days of school, telling parents they were being advised that the new Algebra 1 class would be WAY over their heads. Students told parents, and parents told other parents, creating a sea of mixed messages in play.

A packed informational meeting designed to share details unfortunately deisintegrated into a confusing “fright-night”. One math teacher – not part of the official program – took the floor and shared her opinion that, “Unless your child prefers math homework over soccer, this class is not for them.”

Other teacher comments I heard included:

* “Nobody but the true math geeks take calculus as a junior.”

* It’s “crazy” that kids might “be forced to take a math class at a University in their senior year”.

One teacher suggested that reaching pre-calc by a student’s senior year was “good enough”.

Again, these comments were not part of the official presentation, but they were effective in discouraging and scaring parents. And while their opinions might be based on legitimate concerns, it would’ve been much more professional to present them in an objective, and unemotional manner.

For it’s part, I wish the district had offered a more clear and concise explanation of the differences between these various algebra curriculums. Better yet, the district – and objective math teachers – could’ve offered a plan showing how much additional learning support these students would need if they step up to the challenge of Algebra 1, as well as a list of how much overlapping content they’d face with the "safer choice" of the "new” pre-algebra.

Absent a lack of clarity, and influenced emotionally by the unofficial generalization that “this math is SO hard” and "will set your kids up for failure", some parents left more confused, frustrated, and unsure than ever.

Incredibly, some even questioned why the more rigorous course would even be OFFERED!

Relevant thoughts notably absent from the discussion that night:

* There was nothing to balance the message that “your child is ill-prepared and likely to fail”.

* There was no mention of the fact that there are online resources available with these new texts that can provide additional support.

* There was no mention of the fact that Rochester does have some outstanding math teachers that are more than capable of teaching the new curriculum.

* There was no discussion about how neighboring districts have plenty of seventh and eighth graders taking “true” Algebra 1.

And while Rochester may not have many juniors taking AP Calculus, it’s not uncommon at all in districts such as East Lansing, Bloomfield Hills, Forest Hills, Birmingham, and Troy. And, it’s commonplace in schools like Marion, Brother Rice, Cranbrook, Country Day, and Greenbriar.

Let me be clear: I’m in no position to evaluate which math class is best for any individual child, and I’m not trying to “sell” anyone on anything. But it is very discouraging to see emotional appeals sabotage the genuine interest parents had in seeking more rigor and opportunity for their children. My purpose in spotlighting this issue is to demonstrate one of the biggest challenges facing public education today: motivating students, parents, and teachers to reach higher.

It would’ve been inappropriate for me to speak out at the meeting. But what I would’ve liked to have pointed out is that we live in competitive and challenging times, which undeniably requires higher standards and expectations. We need to make sure students are prepared for that challenge. Other districts – many other districts – successfully shepherd students through the very same “new” math curriculum adopted by Rochester, and begin with Algebra 1 in middle school. Rochester children will be competing with them – as well as children from China and India – for seats at Michigan’s colleges and universities.

I simply cannot understand why some believe Rochester students and teachers are not up to the task.

Again, let me be clear: when asked, the only advice I’ve ever given is that parents talk with their teacher and look for clear, objective, unemotional explanations of why the teacher believes this specific student is prepared – or not – for Algebra 1.

If all they're told is, “It’s hard because I said it’s hard”, then perhaps parents might consider looking at this important decision in the same way they would a proposed medical procedure or treatment. In medicine, we get a second opinion – from someone other than the doctor’s partner – hoping to get a complete picture. It’s prudent, and is not disrespectful to your doctor.

After the fear-mongering I heard the other night, a second opinion might be a good idea.

A former teacher wrote to me and shared what they thought would’ve been a much more effective message from teachers:

"Hey, it's a transition to a totally new textbook. There are differences in the two texts.

If your child takes the Pre-Algebra before the Algebra I, then we can assure you that while there will be repeated material, that your child will get adequate and thorough coverage of all the different material before advancing to Algebra I. If your child has struggled, takes longer to pick up on a concept, is easily frustrated by math, is involved in activities that preclude lengthy homework assignments, if your child has no intention of advancing beyond the minimum required Algebra II in high school, or is not willing to put forth a reasonable effort, then this is the best option for you. Realize the highest your child can achieve is pre-calculus.

If your child opts for Algebra I, then understand they will be expected to work at an accelerated rate to cover both the material that is unique to the new textbook series and also the Algebra I material. I as a teacher will do everything to support and teach your child and make them successful. This will not be a class for slackers. Your child will need to work. We will be going at a faster rate but it will give them the opportunity to achieve AP Calc by senior year. But I will always be available to your child and your child's success will be my top priority."

Advice like that, coupled with a meaningful discussion of an individual child’s specific math skills, might be just what the doctor ordered!


Anonymous said...

I'm still confused but my 9th grader finished and "aced" Geometry last year at Hart.

As far back as 5th grade we got mixed messages from teachers and counselors regarding math for her.

As parents we looked at test scores. The 5th grade teacher advised against the accelerated 6th grade math so we went with the standard 6th.


She tested very well and with the advise of the 6th grade teacher we leap frogged ahead. My daughter got "A"s right through Geometry in 8th grade.

So the second opinion is great advise.

However, as we spoke to teachers and counselors at Stoney Creek about Honors Math and the path to Calc 1 as a Junior we are opting for a heavy dose of AP science starting as a 10th grader.

From what we gather for my now 6th grader, we may repeat what we did prior. The changes are confusing.

However I will share this. According to a few teachers we stay in contact with, 65% of the 8th gradres were NOT getting the OLD way of doing it. So pushing them will only hurt them. Math is not an escalador you ride, you must master it.

Anonymous said...

If 65 % of 8th graders weren't getting the OLD way of doing it, what on earth took the district so long to make this change?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Rochester's unofficial 6-12 grading scale might be part of the problem?

A = Average
B = Bad

Anonymous said...

The 65% refers to the ones that are not getting the current OLD program as compared to the NEW standards. The district is making adjustments to fix this and get these kids on track and aligned with the new requirements.

For those of you who don't get it, the bar has been moving upward and in some cases faster than our students. So like the Wipeout TV show, the Sweeper got some of them.

How many of the 65% got pushed when they should NOT have been? How many of the 100 parents didn't show up until there was a percieved problem?

I feel empathy for the 8th grade parents and the confusion should not have happened this way.

But throwing gasoline on a fire never helps. But this seems to be the specialty of blogs.

Hermione said...


"Not getting the current OLD program as compared to the NEW standards"?

Algebra is algebra.

The FUNDAMENTAL question is whether Rochester's "previous" or "new" algebra is "college preparatory" or some lightweight "other".

The intent of gently walking local kids through the mathematical continuum is certainly noble, but renaming classes misleads the public, particularly those whose math education isn't up to world- class speed - and that includes MANY people in decision-making positions, who might be considered otherwise "well-educated" by virtue of assorted postsecondary degrees, which include NO postsecondary math experience, much less expertise.

We are in the dawn of a new day & math & science literacy are its currency.

In 1990, a College Board Report “Changing the Odds” , found that students of all ethnic backgrounds who take two years of college preparatory high school math are likely to graduate from college.

No other high school subject exhibits as strong of an association.

According to Donald Stewart, the president of the College Board: "These findings justify serious consideration of a national policy to ensure that all students take algebra and geometry... Math is the gatekeeper of success in college."

Anonymous said...

Algebra is Algebra so why not just jump straight to Algebra 2?

If they make it ok. If not they work in the car wash.

This is not an arguement on the value or the fact we need high standards.

It is the rate at which we teach.

Some need more time. Some get it quick like mine.

You can legislate that the sun never comes up again but you can't make it happen.

However all kids need a push and a chance.

Anonymous said...

"All kids need a push & a chance."

No question.

Rochester schools NEED to buy in now!

Anonymous said...

It's the parents that need to push the kids and the district.

When the customer demands better service, only then will they get it.

Most board meetings are very sparcely attended. But just get someone mad and that room fills up.

Anonymous said...

The school board is an embarassment.

Who and what do they represent?

Definitely not students, who are heading into what may be the nation's most competitive college admissions era in history.

Mike Reno is the ONLY board member who seems to understand this and who makes an effort to challenge the status quo.

This middle school math mess is just another example of the board's lousy stewardship.

Anonymous said...

The number one deterent to schools having high math standards is parents. Teachers and schools are afraid to hold kids to high standards because all too often that comes back to bite them in the butt when a parent complains about their child struggling. It may not be the majority but too often parents are viewed as defense lawyers. It doesn't take too many bad experiences for teachers to be afraid of holding Johnny to a high standard.

Mike Reno said...

Is it "defense attorney" or "prosecuting attorney"?


You make a really good point... thank you for the post.

That is why I really like the idea of "opt-in".

The first time parents complain about Little Johnny's struggles, the teacher can point out that only a partnership can fix things, and can prescribe specific after-school exercises and resources designed to help Little Johnny. In fact, they can insist on it by pointing out, "I am eager and motivated to help deliver this challenging material, but as we discussed during the opt-in process, I cannot do it without your commitment to deep and sustained involvement at home."

Note that this is not intended to alievate the teacher of responsibility, and the partnership presumes the teachers is effective at delivering the instruction in the first place. But a close partnership with the parents is going to help demonstrate that competence -- or not -- which can only help to improve the partnership with the schools and the learning environment for the student.

Anonymous said...

It's prosecutor.

Mr. Reno and the post above hit it spot on. The parents make the difference not the school board!

I'm now informed by my 13 year old Freshmen that there are quite a few Seniors in her Advanced, or Algebra 2, or or whatever it is called. I don't care what it is called but the confusion doesn't help.

We had great reservations as far back as Kindergarden because she is near the birthday cut off. Could she make it at the younger age.

Sooooo, we worked with her and stayed on top of her grades and her understanding of the material. The latter is more important. You can test well and NOT get it.

Competence and parental involvement/comittment is the key.

If we parents don't put all emphasis on study before all else, the grades and competence will suffer.

If we let our kids show up sleep deprived, ill prepared, and jacked up on Monster, the teachers don't have a chance of instructing regardless of board directives and laws.

So it looks like the math thing is mostly a tempest in a teapot but the other challenges remain.

Academics and funding to support them!

So is it lousy stewardship on the part of ALL the board or are we parents too self absorbed to put our kids first?

Do we need a scapegoat?
Feeling guilty?

Anonymous said...

I said "defense attorney" because they are always there to defend Johnny since Johnny can do no wrong.

Teachers often find that many parents are more interested in their child getting an A than actually learning material. It takes a lot of guts to hold kids to high standards. You have to have very thick skin because there will always be somebody questioning what you do.

I can tell you that the kids in my classroom averaged a 4.2 on the AP Calculus test which I thought was pretty good especially for it being my first year teaching it. Even so, there are many students who would rather have another teacher because it's much easier to get an A and the accountability is lower.

Anonymous said...

I think the "opt-in" part is excellent. I see this as the problem with the new state-mandated curriculum. Parents and students have not chosen to "opt-in." They have been forced into the new curriculum. No matter what teachers and schools do, the child will not be successful without the desire of the student and the high expectations of the parent.

I wish we had a "college-prep" diploma that students/parents could "opt-in" to. Others might choose a more vocational track.

Anonymous said...

So is it the lousy board OR the self-absorbed parents? Or is it the self-absorbed board or the lousy parents?

Probably all of the above.

Most parents have no clue who sits on their school board, much less understand its responsibilities and - in Rochester's case - legendary antics.

A student-focused board would hold accountable those administrators who left this 8th grade math mess unresolved, causing needless chaos & confusion for students, teachers and parents at the start of a new school year.

The board approved funding for a K-12 reform task force that met throughout 2007-8, yet all those people meeting for all those months couldn't figure out middle school math?

Has the board thought to ask how or why this unfortunate oversight occurred?

C'mon people...just this once let's see you acknowledge & apologize for your screw-up, and order it fixed! It's not so complicated.

Give these 8th graders whatever they need to succeed in REAL algebra. It's the least the district can do, after putting them & their families through this unnecessary turmoil.

One Wise Mama said...

Why is everyone so afraid to let kids take a challenge that just MIGHT be above their heads? A challenge where they might struggle and their grades might suffer? If 7th grade isn’t a good time to begin to set the bar up a bit, when would be better? If the focus is on putting forth your best effort and seeing what you can achieve with hard work (rather than a perfect or even “high” grade) your sons & daughters will be just fine. Not only might they learn a bit about math, but they will also learn to keep the successes and lapses that come with academic rigor in perspective. These gifts will build a stronger self-esteem than a “good grade.” And who knows, maybe the youngsters may surprise their skeptical teachers and just receive those “good grades” after all!

Mike Reno said...

Dear Anonymous Teacher:

The "prosecuting attorney" comment was my feeble attempt at humor, hoping to toss in the thought that sometimes parents go beyond simply defending Johnny.

You have really touched on one of several key points I was trying to highlight. Parents need to be more involved, not only in supporting their children, but also in encouraging them to stretch themselves.

But you've also touch on another point, and that's this quest for high GPA, regardless of rigor. That even came up at the information meeting I described. A parent asked, "How will this impact them if they take this harder class, and don't do well?" I was flabergasted to hear someone from the Central Office staff say that colleges would prefer someone with a "A" in pre-calc over someone who got a "C" in AP Calc AB. What kind of message is THAT sending?

Colleges don't help in this regard. When asked if colleges prefer students with A's, or students who take AP, the typical college recruiter will say, "We prefer students who get A's in AP." It's a cute quip, but not helpful in any way whatsoever.

I agree that "It takes a lot of guts to hold kids to high standards", but only if it's done in a education culture that doesn't have high standards. If the leaders of the district are able to foster a culture of high standards, then the opposite happens; teachers who don't hold kids to high standards get run out of town by parents.

I don't know where you teach, but you sound like the kind of teacher I'd want for my children! :-)

Mike Reno said...

Dear "Opt-in" Anonymous (by the way, people posting can click on the NAME/URL button when posting their comments, and make up a name! It makes it easier to have dialogs...)

I disagree a bit... although perhaps I'm looking too literally at your comments. You say, "No matter what teachers and schools do", which seems to underestimate their roles. I think that schools can influence a child by setting high -- or low -- expectations. Teachers have a huge influence over kids. Furthermore, parents look to the schools for guidance, and are very susceptible to the "push'em" or "go easy" messages.

As far as the state goes, I have struggled with the "requirements" concept.

But what I also struggle with is my first hand observation of the low expectations of public education. For example, I believe that a student can get a pretty good education in many public schools if they have active, knowledgeable and involved parents. If these students don't have such parents, and rely solely on the system, then they are likely to get, well, who knows what.

Just last week in the very example I wrote about, I heard a few teachers encouraging parents not to push their kids, and to take the safe route. Not specific children, mind you, but THE WHOLE GROUP.

If there wasn't some requirement to get these children through Algebra 2, then how far should they get?

These state requirements are really not -- or shouldn't be -- very ambitious for the for typical college bound student. For example, a student meeting the state's math requirements -- getting through Algebra 2 -- would by most standards still not be prepared to do college-level math (Calculus)

And while I understand the argument that not every kid is college bound, I wonder when exactly that should be determined. I'm not trying to be argumentative, but I guess I'm not sure at what point schools should in essence "give up" on getting a student to college.

And as I understand it, there is an "escape clause" in the existing grad requirements that allows parents/students to "opt out" of the state requirements.

(As a side note, and not to get off on another tangent... what I've proposed in the past is that Rochester look at a "Rochester Diploma", which would be based on meeting the state requirements, and a "Rochester Diploma with Honors", which would be earned by meeting the state requirements, PLUS taking maybe 2-3 AP classes, along with other reasonable requirements, such as community service.)

Mike Reno said...

Dear "One Smart Momma"...

If you are from Rochester... where were you last Wednesday? :-)

That would've been great input for parents to consider as they weighed their decision.

Thank you for sharing those thoughts! :-)

==> Mike.

jbuch said...

I'm using a name now:) What I meant was that at the end of the day, the student needs to actually do the learning. We can teach and teach and teach, but the student needs to do something to learn the material. You can lead a horse to water, etc... Schools can do much to try to encourage/promote the rigorous classes. There has to be buy-in. I don't believe you can legislate learning. That's my problem with NCLB,etc...

Much has to be done before 9-12 to ensure that students are ready for the rigor that we want for them. Last year I taught AP Calc but also taught a Pre-Algebra Support class. These were 9th graders, some with learning disabilities and most with terrible homes. Very few of these students could even do much basic multiplication in their heads. They were so far behind by the time they reached high school, I don't believe they have any chance of mastering Algebra II (at least not in 4 years).

I think social promotion is a huge problem. Accountability cannot start in 9th grade. I've looked up transcripts of kids who are struggling in 9th grade and some of them hadn't passed a math class since 4th grade but sure enough got moved on each year. I think summer school should be required for those who aren't mastering the material. Then you must figure out the reason they are not mastering it. Is it aptitude or attitude? Aptitude might require some special ed services and some students don't have the God given ability to perform at the same level as normal students. Attitude is tougher to deal with--alternative ed, court school, etc... I don't know. What I do know is that I don't want those students who are attitude problems to interfere with the learning of the students who will put forth some effort. Thankfully in my school, the majority of students will give you a decent effort. Too much time is wasted though in dealing with the discipline issues of a few students.

Mike Reno said...

Hello jbuch.

While I agree that the student needs to actually do the learning, I also think it's up to the adults around the student -- both parents and teachers -- to help them believe they can do it. And while it's true "you can lead a horse to water...", I think it's also true that "success story come in cans... failures come in cannots."

That aside, you have helped to bring into the equation some of the big variables, such as "special needs", and students who have not been adequately prepared.

It may not have been clear in my post, but the situation I wrote about is based on kids considered "advanced" by virtue of the fact they had tested out of the "standard track". And while I do also proposed that the "average" student should be able to handle algebra 1 by 9th grade, that doesn't mean I think that applies to every student.

One of the promising tools I've seen is one offered by Pearson Learning. In Oakland County, the ISD purchased a license for every student, and districts can pay to upgrade to versions with more capabilities. The idea is that assessments are given several times throughout the year, and each question on the assessment is directly tied to a GLEC (or CLE). The potential for analysis is too broad to get into with this one post, but suffice it to say that utilization of a tool like this makes it all but impossible for social promotion, or at least make it possible to trace back to when the problem first surfaced. One of the benefits that might apply to this discussion is the ability to look back and see EXACTLY which GLECs a student did not master, providing invaluable insight to the teacher, and enabling them to pinpoint where remedial work is needed.

Simply put, the Pearson tool (or any of those tools that are similar) are the most exciting and promising things I've seen since I became involved in education.

The biggest hurdle I see is that some teachers are reportedly opposed -- steadfastly opposed -- to offering the common assessments that are need to implement a system like this. Rochester has common assessments in Elementary, but not in Secondary (at least not a significant number of them).

Discipline is an entirely other issue. Perhaps one of the "conditions" of the opt-in plan might be an understanding that if your child is allowed to opt--in, then they will be removed if they become a displine discipline.

I'm curious... do you feel that the state provided a sufficient "escape clause" for special needs students, or struggling students? As you know, they can produce their own "education plan", and bypass the state requirements with teacher and principal approval.

==> Mike.

jbuch said...

Maybe I haven't made myself clear. I think the school system and the adults in it need to encourage/promote high achievement and rigor as best it can. In the end though, the student still has to be an active participant. Learning will not occur by osmosis. I've had numerous students over the years that won't give one ounce of effort. Usually these students come from homes in which there is no value placed on education. I guess if I had the answer for those students, I would write a book, make millions, and retire:)

I think the escape clause is ok for special education if the IEP is allowed to trump the Merit Curriculum. Nobody seems to know for sure and the state keeps changing their interpretation of the law.

My focus has been mathematics. For general education students, even with modification, they still must master 1/2 credit of Algebra II in order to graduate. I think there are going to be a lot of students who won't graduate. Some because they won't put forth the effort--they don't deserve to graduate, and some who can't master Algebra II--these I worry about.

One worry I have as a math educator is that there will be tremendous pressure to water down Algebra II in order to help kids pass. I want no part of that because it's not fair to those students who can/will step up to the challenge. I think House Bill 5943 is a good compromise.

If the state is going to mandate courses then I think the state should be giving common exams for those courses in order to grant credit. This is the only way to prevent schools from lying and saying a kid did a certain course. There will not really be any accountability from the state to ensure that the course actually covers the state mandated objectives.