Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Academically Waterboarding Middle School Math Students

I continue to struggle to understand the logic – or lack thereof – of the methods employed by some responsible for our children’s education.

This school year, Rochester schools implemented a revised math curriculum. It was required to do so in order to comply with the State of Michigan’s new, more rigorous high school graduation requirements. Oddly enough, in transitioning Rochester middle school students from the old to a new math curriculum, central office folks decided to “round down” (my words).

They unilaterally determined that the district’s top middle school math students – those who had just completed the “old” Pre-Algebra – should take (retake?) the “new” Pre-Algebra, rather than advancing to Algebra I.

Understandably. parents objected. And in response, the district offered a bold compromise: If parents were really convinced that their kids were ready, students could elect to “opt-in” to Algebra I.

While I would have preferred more thoughtful student guidance, I was willing to accept the compromise because it offered an option to rescue these talented, yet overlooked students from the tedious prospect of needlessly repeating an entire year of math.

But even with this compromise, the hesitation of some to offer an appropropriate academic challenge was stark - even shocking. The district held a math 'information night', which unfortunately turned into a misinformation night. Some officials and some teachers attempted to frighten parents, literally telling them kids would fail if they attempted to move on to Algebra I.

Instead of encouraging children with “Yes, you can!”, they discouraged motivated students by suggesting, “Maybe you shouldn’t”.

Despite the official naysaying, two hundred and seventy one 6th and 7th grade students - with parental support - opted to enroll in the more challenging Algebra I math course. And despite the doomsday predications, recent grading data indicates that the vast majority of the students earned a “B” or better in the new Algebra I.

Unfortunately, the damage is already done. This school year, approximately 25% of eight graders - those considered “advanced math” students under the old system - are taking geometry. Yet only 12% of current year seventh grade “advanced math” students are taking Algebra I - the course which precedes geometry - under the new math curriculum. This means that the number of next year’s eighth graders who take geometry may be reduced by 50 percent.

It’s significant to note that if the district’s original proposal had prevailed - restricting all advanced math students to Pre-Algebra - there would be almost no 8th graders taking geometry next year.

And while it’s encouraging to learn that the daring Algebra 1 students have been so successful, it’s disheartening to hear from those who did not opt in. The school board recently received email
from parents whose kids followed the district’s advice to take (retake?) the new Pre-Algebra. These students were bored in math, and their parents are now desperate to get their kids back onto the accelerated math track.


With this unfortunate experience so close at hand, and with tangible data readily available, you’d think the district would revise its approach for this year’s current 6th and 7th grade advanced math students.

Given that ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ you’d think the school board would have interest in how math matters were addressed during the year.

Sadly, you’d be wrong.

Once again, the district held its “information night” this spring to help parents better understand their young students’ options. I attended. The district sent one central office administrator, and one middle school principal. Unfortunately, not a single math teacher was in attendance, and no other board members came to observe.

Attending parents expressed serious concerns about the district’s failure to challenge their children in math. They shared their frustration – and even anger – over a “whisper campaign” conducted by some math teachers. Parents overwhelmingly reported that Rochester middle school students are being discouraged from taking Algebra I.

These parents are supportive of their children’s learning aspirations, and dedicated to helping them succeed. They requested study guides, or some other materials to help students prepare for Rochester’s homegrown district “Placement Exam”. In response, the district referred parents to the Michigan Department of Education’s website to look up the 8th grade GLCEs.

Left without official support, parents turned to each other for help. Online resource materials were found. Self-directed study groups were formed. Students were shown that the course content for Pre-Algebra contained much of what they had learned this year.

In a bizarre twist, the district offered last minute suggestions. After months of stalling, and just 10 days before the placement exam, the district posted study suggestions online.

Yet, the posting wasn’t advertised to parents!

The exam was administered last week. Students reported its scope was well beyond the material presented in their study guides, and most felt they were unlikely to “pass”. Similar impressions were reported by students who took the exam last year - the same students, incidentally, who are earning A’s and B’s this year in Algebra I.

From my perspective, this placement exam’s credibility is suspect -- and harmful. It fails to serve as a reliable indicator of success, while simultaneously serving to discourage and block the advancement of students capable of doing Algebra I. At a minimum it's time to find a new test.

By using this test, the district is academically waterboarding these students; intending to pressure them into compliance by simulating failure.

It's also disturbing that some teachers are "lobbying" students... telling them their parents are wrong to encourage them to take Algebra 1. It's quite appropriate for teachers to have an opinion on this matter, and they should share that opinion with parents. They are the education partners, and should be working together. But it's downright unprofessional for teachers to attempt to drive a wedge between parents and their children.

The biggest failure, however, rests with your school board. Last year’s “Math Wars” may have caught them by surprise. But there is no excuse for this year’s oversight. The board watched this discussion unfold, fully armed with the data and experience described above. Furthermore, the administration and board is fully aware of the in-classroom intimidation tactics, and are doing nothing to stop it.

The school board’s failure to maintain vigilance on this important matter is inexcusable.

Through its inaction, this board has earned its distinction as a “Weapon of Math Destruction”.