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”.


Anonymous said...


My child is in a class (in Rochester) where the teacher asked "How many of your parents are MAKING you take Algebra 1?" A good number of kids raised their hands, and the teacher got mad, basically telling them their parents are foolish.

Has anyone else had this experience? Does anyone else think that is wrong?

Angie said...

WAY TO GO, Mike!It is very disheartening that children and their parents who choose to strive to be challenged are treated as though they are doing something wrong! My present 7th grader is one of those children who chose to do Algebra I and is receiving a very strong "A" in the class-despite a 39% on the "placement exam". Last year he was told that chances are he wouldn't be able to be successful and continue playing sports and do other extra-curriculars if he chose this path-scared the daylights out of me when he wanted to try it anyway. Luckily, he was self motivated and chose this class on his own without my support which is why I rallied this year to help my present 6th grader study for the exam with a great group of friends. They all received grades in the 50% and 60% ranges with only 3-4 sessions of very casual study groups led by a few parents. Only 3 out of the 6 children have decided to pursue Algebra 1. One was even discouraged by a counselor to even sit for the exam. There is nothing wrong with choosing Pre Algebra, but WHAT A SHAME that schools and teachers have NO interest in helping more children achieve their maximum educational potential! It may not seem like a big deal now, but challenging yourself is habit forming so if a child is never challenged even at these young ages, how will they respond when they are faced with the challenges that life brings? Teachers have such an influence on children and parents! They really should think twice before being so discouraging. In the case of this year's 6th grade parents, I wonder how many would choose the Algebra course if just one person in a position of authority would have presented a more positive scenario? This year's fight might be about middle school math, but I truly believe that the underlying issue goes much deeper. At a recent Honors Convocation Ceremoy, the principal used this quote," Do not follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is not a path and leave a trail." I only wish that advice was given support in the actual school setting at ALL levels of education.

Ella said...

Scores go up, but expectations go down?

Interesting paradox.

Given that NAEP reported record high math scores for 4th – 8th grades nationally in 2007, why would Rochester school administrators take an obvious backwards step with local math curriculum? The district regularly brags about its “above state and national averages” status on everything from A to Z, so it’s fair to assume local kids also achieved record high math scores over the past 5 years, right?

If so, the bar clearly ought to be going up, not down.

Does the district employ enough math teachers to teach more sections of higher level math at middle school? If not, why not?

How many task forces and study groups does Rochester need to convene to convince its school board that math matters more than ever and that more is better for most?

What possible rationale did the district’s chief curriculum official use to justify holding back middle school math students?

Is there an ugly anti-math bias lurking among us?

Out with it!

Anonymous said...

Mixed results for me. My oldest scored over 80% on the 6th grade test and Aced Geometry in 8th grade.

She is now finishing Algebra 2 as a Freshmen. [ 4.0. ] Also in Block Science [same grade] looking toward AP as a Soph. She responds very well to pushing and a challenge.

My current 6th grader pulled 64% on the math test and NEVER wanted to step up to the challenge.

I'm not going to push her hard on this only to have her possibly give up and forefit her STRAIGHT A record.

In the end it is still my responsibility to make the decision even if teachers and others advise me.

Even if Mike doesn't agree with me.

On another note.

What do you know about the OCC program?
Auburn Hills Oakland Community Accelerated Learning College (OCALC)?

Ella said...

Dear Anonymous,

No doubt you know that every kid is different and every kid deserves a parent who recognizes and respects thse differences.

But fear of forfeiting straight A's is misplaced, starting with middle school (I'm sure you know middle school grades aren't factored into high school GPA's, which is why it's a great time to take chances and explore things scholastically). In fact, there's a powerful argument to be made for helping students recognize that striving doesn't always lead to success.

I also want to thank Mike Reno, for once again being such an EXEMPLARY school board trustee!

Your presence on the Rochester board these past 5 years has brought countless improvements and much-needed change to the Rochester district!

Keep up the GREAT job, Mike!

You are simply the BEST!

Clay said...

Two comments, based on 40 years' experience in education, both public (teacher, principal, superintendent) and non-public (teacher, principal, board member):

FIRST, when the new (and really, first) state graduation requirements were published a few years ago, I was surprised at the number of math teachers who said they would not be comfortable teaching "higher" levels of math than what they currently were teaching. (The new math requirements would call for more teachers for "higher" math.) Administrators and union reps also addressed an impending shortage of "higher level" math teachers. Thus the reluctance to encourage kids to take more challenging math classes. I'm not sure of the reason for the teaching concern: quality of teaching personnel? weak math education curriuculum in the colleges? low certification standards? I don't know, but it should be a concern we have.

SECOND: I firmly believe that, to really change public education in Michigan, the visionaries and leaders should be other than those whose only educational experience has been in Michigan public schools.

If one spent 12 years learning in a Michigan public school, trained to teach in Michigan public schools in a Michigan university, and has spent his whole professional career in Michigan public schools, he really has little idea what kids are truly capable of. He was educated in, trained to teach in, and has worked in a system designed to reach the average, the norm, the standard. Many more dollars are spent and programs developed to bring kids UP to that level than are spent or developed to take kids BEYOND that level.

As I said in my very first post to Mike's blog: kids will either live up to what is expected of them or live down to what is accepted from them. Michigan public education has traditionally been satisfied with the latter.

Added to that is the "culture" in which the Michigan public school teacher has worked since the mid-sixties. The "accepted" is the easy, non-controversial mainstream; the "expected" calls for visionaries and practicioners breaking free from the norm and the "culture."

Anonymous said...

What on earth makes you people think you should have any say in this matter. This should be up to the teacher, PERIOD.

Would you question your doctor?

Anonymous said...

Up to the teacher period? You're kidding right?

And yes. I ALWAYS question my doctor.

carraig said...

Parents know best - almost always do. Teachers compare what they see, but ultimately it's down to the parents.

The comment on "A"s and GPA is why I believe that no college should pay any attention to any internally administered test score. It's created this grade inflation monster. ACT/SAT or MME/Regents etc ok.

Kids should not be penalized for challenging themselves.

Anonymous said...

How about some REAL data? This blog gives the illusion of authority, but lacks the backing of real data. It is not possible for Mr. Reno to access the data he feigns. There is at best the anecdotal data of a few individual student's results.

The crux of the matter is ensuring the right challenge for the right students. This is obvious at extremes; advancing an average 2nd grader into Algebra 1 = failure, or, the mind numbing experience of an 11th grade AP Calculus student taking 'business math' in 12th grade. As you move toward the middle of this continuum, exact placement becomes more difficult.

The district is only able to recommend guidelines...most students taking Algebra 1 in 9th grade to finish in Pre-Calculus in 12th grade. This expectation is not lower than before. And, with the new curriculum which is more rigorous, this sequence can be expected to challege students more than they had been challenged before.

Aside from the broad college prep path, it is up to each student's teacher & parents to take student observations and translate them into an appropriate placement. Both the parent and the teacher play critical roles. It is this informed communication that must continue.

The quetion I have is this. If parents and teachers both want the best educational experience for each student, where does this conflict arise? I believe the hypothesis is 95% accurate. So, is this blog really about the 5% of educators who don't care to push kids (who are not the ones responsible for any of the present changes anyway), and the 5% of parents who are blissfully unaware of their son or daughter's shortcomings?

If so, then my post was a waste time...unless readers recognize the issue for what it is...a non-issue...short on data & riddled with fear and mistrust.

Mike Reno said...

"How about some REAL data? This blog gives the illusion of authority, but lacks the backing of real data. It is not possible for Mr. Reno to access the data he feigns. There is at best the anecdotal data of a few individual student's results."

While they may be disturbing, I can assure you that statistics I provided in this post are indeed factual.

You are free to confirm with the district's office of Curriculum and Instruction. A spreadsheet was prepared showing math participation, by grade, and by math course/level.

And as a side note, you point out that these changes will not impact the 9th grade Algebra to 12th grade Pre-Calc student. You are correct... it does indeed maintain the status quo.

While some might see that as sufficient, I don't. In California, the AVERAGE 8th grader is taking Algebra.

SpecComm said...

Call me skeptical, but the construction of the post by ‘Anonymous’ (“How about some real data…”) suggests that the writer’s primary purpose here is to discredit, rather than offer constructive dialogue.

The writer employs an enlightened tone of authority, declaring that the “new curriculum” is more “rigorous”, yet provides no supporting evidence, then segues into the safe rhetoric that “it is up to each student’s teacher & parents to take student observations and translate them into appropriate placement”, before blasting with this final salvo:

“… unless readers recognize the issue for what it is...a non-issue...short on data & riddled with fear and mistrust”.

What if the school district’s guidelines are inadequate? What if the curriculum and its proponents are insufficient in the judgment of one or three hundred parents acting on behalf of one or three hundred students?

Is the answer to get to work, or merely to get ugly?

Just asking said...

What level of math mastery has been attained by Rochester school curriculum experts?

What about teachers in elementary, middle and high school?

Dennis Pittman said...

Mike you are the gold standard of what school board members in Michigan should be. Representation of the kids is way too rare now days and I thank you for your work!