May 2011

Districts Need Higher Math Expectations for All

Cross-posted to Clayton Richmond Heights Patch

School districts throughout Missouri are reevaluating their math programs because the state is planning on adopting the new Common Core standards. While some people may balk at the idea of nationalized standards, politicians need to put their petty power disputes aside and look at what is best for kids. Massachusetts said it would not join the coalition unless the standards were at least as rigorous as its own, driving the standards up rather than the more typical downward spiral we tend to expect. While the Missouri MAP tests are challenging, the standards were poorly written. Adopting the Common Core standards is a positive step.

Clayton School District's math curriculum committee has made some substantial recommendations in its cyclical review of the math program. Other districts will be looking at their math programs whether they are up for review or not because of the upcoming changes in standards.

Clayton recommended changes:
•eliminating the integrated math sequence at the high school
•requiring the majority of 8th graders to take a full algebra course in 8th grade instead of the “algebra light” course currently taught
•recommending new textbooks for the high school and middle school (elementary will be reviewed this coming year)
•beefing up content mastery and fluency at the elementary
•requiring Algebra I level knowledge for all elementary teachers, Algebra II level knowledge for middle school math teachers

While the board seemed pleased with the amount of work put into the 621-page document, the members were not completely satisfied. They wanted more.

“Will this document guide us to ensure our teachers and curriculum teach a variety of ways so all of our children can excel?" she [Susan Bradley-Buse] asked the committee. “I don’t see that in here.” (Travis Pringle, “Math Curriculum Update Draws Questions on Textbooks, Teaching Styles”Clayton-RH Patch 29 April 2011)

I want to see math educators broaden their view. Instead of focusing on test scores and teacher recommendations to select a few students into the honors sequence, they need to emphasize looking at practices that can help as many students as possible excel at a high level.

Districts often provide support structures for struggling and exceptional students, but what about making those available for a wider base? For example, Clayton currently offers extra support courses for students in regular math classes so that they can be successful. This can help many students avoid taking less-intensive courses but gives them the extra help needed. I think this is a wonderful concept that should be more broadly applied. Possibilities could include a summer class to help middle school students move from regular math to honors, tutoring sessions taught by college and high school students, support groups for math anxiety, etc.

Finland consistently ranks at or near the top on the international test PISA. All students take the same course together with struggling student provided extra help.

A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those who struggle in a particular subject. But the pupils are all kept in the same classroom, regardless of their ability in that particular subject. (Tom Bridge, “Why do Finland’s Schools Get the Best Results?” BBC 7 Apr 2010)

U.S. students are not the same as those in Finland, but teachers here can learn from their strategies for helping all students.

Moving algebra to the 8th grade for the majority of students is a good first step, which I would like to see replicated across the metropolitan area, but I think we need to go further. Students should be encouraged, not discouraged to challenge themselves even if it takes some extra work.

I’m not advocating eliminating honors courses but emphasizing to students that practice and hard work is more important than innate ability in achieving at a high level in math. If districts start ability grouping at a young age, they have a responsibility to counter that unspoken message by providing creative and productive extra support all students could use to excel in math.