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!