There have been multiple studies over the past few years about detracking math pathways to provide equitable experiences for all students. This excerpt from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics article, Linking Catalyzing Change in MS Mathematics illustrates NCTM’s stance on inequitable pathways:
“The course pathways that a high school offers are most often a continuation of the course pathways of its feeder middle schools. Although de-tracking might seem like an impossible feat, Catalyzing Change offers evidence of it being done successfully (NCTM 2018, pp. 18–19). In the middle, we must find a way to rebuild our structures to dismantle tracking and instead implement effective intentional and targeted interventions for students who need additional support. Further, there is no race to calculus, and schools should not succumb to perceived parental or district pressure to accelerate. In the limited cases in which acceleration is warranted, it should be done appropriately. In other words, “care must be taken to ensure that opportunities are available to each and every prepared student and that no critical concepts are rushed or skipped” (NCTM 2016, p. 1)
I am a mother of two boys. They were both identified for our district gifted program at a young age. I remember being so excited that my child was gifted. I felt a sense of pride and elitism that he was given “the gifted gene.” I cringe as I think back to my narrow view of intelligence and the conversations I have had with him in the past. As a parent and an educator, I have learned much over the years as my first son journeyed through school. I watched as his attitude towards mathematics changed drastically as he began to struggle with mountains of homework and procedural mathematics.
He graduated last year and despite scoring the highest on his mathematics section of the ACT, is terrified to take a math class in college…to the point that he feels his dream of becoming a marine biologist might not be achieved because he is so “bad at math.” Let me assure anyone reading this that he is in fact, not bad at math. He is like so many like him who have had bad math experiences that were perpetuated by a broken system. Experiences I as a parent encouraged and despite being a part of the educational system, did not understand. He has been taught that mathematics is about rules and procedures, memorization and test taking. I write this post in the hopes that other parents who might be uneducated (as I was) in the potential perils of acceleration, will read it and think twice about the pathway they choose for their child.
Please know that my son has had fantastic teachers over the years. I do not blame a single teacher for my son’s math anxiety. I blame the educational system that is wrapped in red tape and far removed from research.
I have talked to district coordinators across the state and the country who are frustrated that expert voices are not used in policy making. I recently attended an NCTM workshop on Catalyzing Change where we dedicated over half of our time to how we might make small strides in helping our communities and policy makers understand the research recommendations. I heard frustrated voices and saw defeat on the faces of math teachers who seek to change pathways for students as they looked to the battle ahead. My hope is that some fraction of those teachers and leaders will continue fighting for equity in education and for instruction that allows for deep understanding of mathematical concepts. I hope that they continue to advocate for kids even when their proposals are rejected time and time again…because that is why we have chosen this profession.
My second son was quite a different story; Different in the fact that I was more knowledgeable and less naive. When he tested for the gifted program (a choice I still struggle with), I talked to him about it first. I explained that this was a choice program that he could participate in and shared with him some of the classes that were offered. I explained that it would be a day away from his home school each week. I also explained that some people thought it meant you were smarter than other kids. I assured him that was not the case, his intelligence is directly related to his work ethic and curiosity for learning. It has always been his choice to go or remain at his home school.
He is now in 6th grade, the year that math pathways are chosen. Our district offers a pathway that splits 7th grade math into two tracks, 7th grade math or 7th Grade Accelerated. Students in the accelerated pathway continue to 8th grade algebra and then to Geometry in 9th. Students must score advanced on MAP and receive a minimum iReady score of 531 at middle of the year to be qualified for advanced math courses.
I have known for years that I would be requesting he be placed in 7th Grade math and not accelerated. My opposition to this has only amplified as more studies have come out and my understanding of the standards has grown. Our district has also adopted an inquiry-based mathematics curriculum resource that I believe offers students a much deeper understanding of the standards.
He qualified for 7th grade accelerated on both measures. I have attached his reports below so that you can gain a better understanding of what I am trying to illustrate. The first figure shows his score on the Missouri standardized test last year. Note the narrative under his performance level.
“Advanced demonstrate advanced proficiency in the knowledge and skills necessary at this grade level/course of learning as specified in the content expectations. The students are well prepared for the next grade level or course and are well prepared for college and career readiness.”
Anything stand out? Nowhere in the narrative does it suggest that he should skip a grade because he is advanced. It states that he is well prepared for the next grade level course; 7th grade math.
The next figure shows a breakdown of his score by domain. Notice that he has two domains that although he still scored advanced, are not maxed out. Notice that Geometry, Measurement and Data and Statistics was his lowest category. I say was because his greatest growth this year according to district testing is in Geometry. In talking with teachers who teach accelerated courses, in order to accommodate the compacting of the curriculum, they are forced to leave out many standards in these domains. Math is a web that is interconnected. If students lose out on experiences with standards that help build on others, they will have gaps in understanding.
The next figure shows a report from his MOY iReady placement. Note that he is 27 points above the minimum score for placement in accelerated math yet his placement is Late 6 in all domains; he is on grade level.
Below are the unit dependencies for the standards aligned curriculum resource we have adopted. As you can see, the pathways for 6th, 7th and 8th grade math are interconnected. This resource builds procedural fluency through conceptual understanding. Students make sense of rich tasks through productive struggle and collaborative problem solving. I don’t want my son to miss out on any of that as I believe (and NCTM recommendations agree) that a strong foundation in the 6-8 learning standards will set him up for success in Algebra in high school.
It is important that we, as educators, but also as parents think deeply about the messages we are sending to our kids (and students). Students are given a very clear message when they are or are not placed into advanced pathways.
I am a math person.
I am not a math person.
I have chosen to discuss this with my son and explain to him why I have requested he be placed in 7th grade math. I want him to know that I have learned from my mistakes and I care about his understanding and attitude towards mathematics. I am confident that as a parent, I will continue to make mistakes, but hopefully I can remedy this one and his love for mathematics will remain intact.