Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Conversations on the Rifle Range 14: Late Start Mondays, Debby Downers, Nervous Nancies and a Tiger Mom

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters under the name Huck Finn, published here, is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range". This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents episode number 14:

Like many school districts, mine instituted “late-start Mondays”, in which school started an hour later and periods were shortened from one hour to 47 minutes.  We reported at 7:30 (as always) and had to attend a meeting or other activities as announced.
On one of my first late-start Mondays, the math teachers were told to meet for a discussion of the upcoming parents’ “math night” scheduled for later that week. The District would present and discuss the various pathways in math under Common Core and answer questions. There was growing concern among parents regarding the increased limit on the number of eighth grade students who can take Algebra 1, and questions about how students could progress to calculus in twelfth grade. 
We met in the core area of the module my classroom was in—a hallway/workspace common to all the classrooms in the module. Sally, the District person I had met at the high school earlier, led the meeting. Her talk was similar to what she told us when I last heard her at the high school in the fall: Algebra 1 for eighth graders would be limited to the “truly gifted”. 
“I imagine we’ll have the usual Debbie Downers and Nervous Nancies in the audience on ‘math night’. We want to make two things clear: that there’s no shame in taking Grade 8 math; under Common Core it’s equivalent to the traditional Algebra 1.  And secondly, placement in eighth grade Algebra 1 will be more difficult. Fewer students will qualify—Common Core is very challenging.” Which all sounds plausible but leaves open the question of why an elite corps of students is then allowed to take the traditional Algebra 1 course in eighth  grade.
In fact, in addition to the one placement test that had been used for years, a new test would be administered. This one—never given anywhere before—was written by a group called the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative (SVMI). And while the title of the group conjures images of people of high calling in math, science and engineering who reside in Silicon Valley, it is actually a group of math reform types funded through the reform-minded Noyce Foundation, and who believe in 1) themselves, and 2) authentic assessments—not necessarily in that order. 

“For this new assessment, students will be required to use their prior knowledge to solve new types of problems—types they’ve never seen before,” Sally explained. I spoke up at this point and asked “If it’s never been given before, how is it going to be considered in making the decision for placement?”
“That’s something the District is going to have to determine once we see the results.” Though sounding like it answered my question, it didn’t.
Discussion continued about pathways to calculus by twelfth grade. Students who take algebra 1 in ninth grade and who wanted to take calculus in twelfth grade could double up their math courses during tenth grade. There! Every question that a Debby Downer or Nervous Nancy could ask was covered.
With that, we dispersed to our various classrooms and Sally bustled off to another destination. My first period was a “prep,” meaning I had no class. I spent some time getting materials in order and was about to go to the copy room when there was a knock at the back door of the classroom. A small Asian woman asked if I was Mr. Garelick. She introduced herself and said her daughter Susan was in my algebra 1 class.
 “I am subbing for Mrs. Perren” –the math chair—she said. “I sub for her quite often. And I also volunteer at the school.” She went on about how she had done work for my teacher (Mrs. Halloran) and wondered if she could drop in to see what was going on in her daughter's algebra class. While I had not worked long enough as a teacher to form the us/them defenses that would cause me to classify this woman, though I was leaning toward Tiger Mom. I definitely did not want her sitting in on my classes. I told her that I was still getting organized in my classes, so it would be better to wait on that. “I understand,” she said.
Her daughter was a very shy, nervous girl—a seventh grader who had placed into Algebra 1. I recalled returning Susan’s Chapter 5 test which she was to have a parent sign. She scored 63%, and I not yet received the test back. This appeared to be her first bad grade.
The mother hadn’t seen the test.  Obviously Susan was keeping it a secret. I couldn’t be party to that so I had to tell the mother her score.  “Oh this is terrible!” she said. “She did not tell us!”  She looked at me as if examining an insect.
"When was this test given?"
 “Mrs. Halloran gave the test before I started. I didn't teach that chapter,” I said
 “Oh.  This is embarrassing.”
I thought to myself: “I should say so, blaming me off the bat!”, but her embarrassment lay elsewhere. Her husband was a math professor at the nearby university, she told me. “So embarrassing,” she said again.
 “I’ll make sure Susan gives you the test,” I said. She left with a scowl on her face.
I told Susan what happened when she came into class later that day. We were alone; she was generally the first one there.
 “Oh no!” she said. “Was she mad? Did it look like she was mad?" I tried to assure her, and said that with corrections she could bring her score up to a 70% (my teacher didn’t allow corrected tests to exceed that score). 
"You will get this material; I’ll work with you."  She covered her face with her hands. Students came into the room and she took her seat. As she regained her composure, I realized that the traditional Algebra 1 course I was teaching was becoming an artifact to be reserved only for the “truly gifted” as measured by questionable means. Students who didn’t qualify would be relegated to supposedly deeper treatment of algebra “concepts”.  A student like Susan whose difficulties may lie outside of ability would be cited as evidence of why eighth grade Algebra 1 was not for everyone. Parents who questioned this dichotomy would be labeled as “one of those” by personnel whose pronouncements were to remain permanent and unassailable—but always full of good cheer.


Anonymous said...

I do not think taking Calculus in 12th grade is the end all be all. What happened to taking proper Calc 101 and 102 as a college freshman? Don't the engineering schools still require Engineering Calculus any way? Isn't the college Calculus more rigorous? I am not a teacher. I am a parent. And I'm getting a hint in here from Barry of something I am hugely tired of: some how parents are not allowed to have an opinion about their child's education? We're supposed to not care, not comment? It's obnoxious and I'm hugely tired of it. ESPECIALLY because these days parents are being asked to spend an hour a day teaching their kids and making them practice, since at school they dabbled in the concept or dispensed with class altogether to go to a fundraiser assembly or other such nonsense.

SteveH said...

The problem is that many schools are ignoring what parents want by making changes that make the pathway to calculus in high school more difficult. Nobody is talking about whether calculus in high school is "the end all be all". Students have always had a choice to not go into algebra in 8th grade. However, many students are or could be ready if only K-6 schools used better math curricula. The Common Core did not deal with this issue and now many educators are trying to create the impression that algebra in 8th grade is some sort of exceptional math brain standard. No. When I was in 8th grade in the 60's we had maybe 30% of the students taking the course, and that was without any help at home from parents.

Barry is not hinting. He is openly stating that in terms of math, many schools do not care about what parents want. (BTW, this is not Barry's opinion.) In our town, we parents had to fight to get any sort of decent math pathway in 8th grade that led to geometry in 9th grade, but now there is the same talk that algebra in 8th grade is some sort of special thing and they might limit who can take the course. It couldn't possibly be a problem with math in K-6.

lgm said...

Additionally, we are seeing that 8th Algebra is the only section where the Regent's Exam is not being gamed. Students who take the course in 9th do not receive the real deal. They will be taught to use the calculator to find answers, instead of the mathematical techniques to find solutions. And they will be penalized if they don't use these gaming techniques and actually use the mathematical techniques they learned in their online/Kumon/someotherprovider Algebra class.

Deirdre Mundy said...

The good engineering schools (and the good colleges in general) expect you to take Calculus AB or BC as a senior.

If you want to major in science or math, some of the schools don't even accept the AP Calc credits- they just use them for placement.

But if you can't place into a decent math course as a freshman, there's no way you'll complete an STEM degree in a timely manner, especially with all the prerequisites.

When you don't offer decent math, you shut doors for the kids. It's one things if the kids and parents decide math isn't important-- but the administration should not be shutting doors on its own.

Anonymous said...

My third child is now 14. He took Algebra 1 in 7th grade and Geometry in 8th grade. He is now in Algebra 2 as a freshman. He is riding a wave of the last fortunate kids to be able to take these classes in earlier grades. I highly doubt that a 10th grader is going to be able to or even be allowed to take two math classes at one time. That seems really unfair, especially if the children are completely capable of completing the course. Here in CA, the standards are being dumbed down by CCSS.