First, the "new new new Math." Pearson, the publisher of TERC Investigations, has collaborated with the power brokers at the highly-reputed, top-scoring Montgomery County School District (MCSD) to create a new "integrated" math program, eventually to be marketed around the country with help from MCSD's academic cachet. It's hard to track down specific details about this curriculum, which debuts this coming school year in Montgomery County, but, judging from its fifth and sixth grade objectives it looks suspiciously like Investigations. These objectives make no mention of standard algorithms like long division, instead emphasizing data, "representations," probability, statistics, and measurement. Nor do we see terms like "calculations," "automaticity," and "mastery"; rather, we find repeated instances of "explore", "examine," and "extend understanding." All good things, in theory; bastardized over the years under Reform Math, they also raise red flags.
Also suspiciously Reform-like are (1) the elimination of the "math pathways" model of grade acceleration wherein capable Montgomery County students could attend above-grade level math classes, and (2) a letter to parents sent out by the principal of Laytonsville Elementary School explaining why grade acceleration has been eliminated for "nearly all" students:
The new standards require students to develop deeper level of understanding in mathematics. Memorizing and repeating formulas will always be part of learning mathematics, but will not be sufficient in order to demonstrate deep understanding. Students will be expected to show understanding, computation, application, reasoning and engagement in a mathematical concept to be ready to move on to a new topic... In addition, the new standards are more challenging at each grade level. For example, many of the standards now in Grade 1 were previously in Grade 2 or higher or were not taught in the prior Montgomery Public Schools Curriculum. Therefore, the practice of grade skipping acceleration in mathematics will not be necessary for most students. Almost all of our students will be working at the challenging grade level standards this year and not in the next grade up.Ah, yes, deep understanding, application, engagement: why are these always associated with the most dumbed-down of math curricula? Even more oxymoronic is the concept of "acceleration within the grade level curriculum"--right up there with "differentiated instruction in heterogeneous groups."
To ensure that the needs of students who require more challenge are met, MCPS has developed enrichment and acceleration within the grade level curriculum that goes beyond the requirements of new standards. Students who have consistently demonstrated proficiency of a mathematics concept will be able to enrich their understanding of a grade-level topic or accelerate to a higher-level topic.
One MCSD parent, whose daughter, then a 3rd grader, was deemed two years ahead in math in last year and placed in a 5th grade math class, suspects that her daughter would be "bored to tears" if kept at grade level under the new curriculum.
But eliminating ability-based grouping reflects one of the key findings of the Montgomery County Mathematics Working Group. Citing a study published in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, they note:
Mixed-ability grouping results in higher achievement for average and lower ability students and does not significantly affect achievement levels for higher ability students.Montgomery County, of course, is part of a larger drive to eliminate ability-based grouping around the country. Montgomery County's new superintendent, Joshua Starr, succeeded in eliminating it in Stamford, Connecticut; where will he go next after he finishes up in Maryland? Perhaps he could come to Philadelphia, where we're currently looking for a new superintendent, and eliminate our magnet high schools.
Good studies on the effects of mixed-ability vs. ability-based grouping on math-inclined students are hard to find. But one study suggests that gifted kids in particular benefit when grouped with like-minded kids and given material tailored to their abilities. And what is perhaps the one truly controlled study ever conducted anywhere in the world suggests that ability-based grouping is good for everyone.
There's at least some evidence that ability-based grouping has worked out well for Montgomery County in particular. Perhaps the lingering effects of that success will help Pearson sell its integrated Montgomery Math curriculum to the rest of the country.