Update: I finally went through the Board of Education meeting caption notes because I was dying to know if the new math course sequence was approved. The answer is yes! There was a lot of great conversation going on from both board members and district leadership discussing the need to communicate big shifts in education to everyone in our education community, specifically how changing standards (the new Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSS-M) to be exact) will make instruction look very different in our schools. I wrote a follow up post on the new math standards which also contains a lot of helpful resources to help you understand this shift. If your child is in middle or high school and you have specific questions about how the new course sequence might affect your child’s learning, click here.
Rachel Norton, SFUSD Board of Education commissioner, recently published a post about a Board of Education meeting to approve the new math course sequence. (A course sequence defines the way students move from course to course to meet college application and graduation requirements.) The proposal seeks to address the key question:
With the transition to the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSS-M), what course sequence supports college and career readiness for all students?
In viewing the documents shared by the SFUSD Math Department, I see a few key take-aways:
- For the current cohort of graduating seniors (Class of 2014), of all students who tested proficient in Algebra during 8th grade, an overwhelming majority of these students lost proficiency by the time they entered 10th grade (just under 80%).
- For African-American and Latino students, these numbers are even higher, hovering at or above 95%.
Some necessary context…
First off, let me state I’m not an expert in mathematics instruction. I do have quite a bit of experience working with schools and districts to support college and career access for all students.
That said, for the past several years, there has been a push across the state (if not nationally) to offer Algebra in the 8th grade to allow high school students the opportunity to pursue more advanced math (Algebra 2 , AP Physics, etc.) and science (AP Chemistry) instruction. In SFUSD, as well as many other urban districts, this has become the norm. What is the rationale for all this? Taking advanced math classes makes students more competitive during the college application process. It is highly recommended students go beyond the minimum a-g requirements of three years math instruction, to take four years of math, preferably some at the Advanced Placement (AP) level.
As far as this discussion goes, there are some other important factors to keep in mind:
- It is my understanding that the current math course progression in place in the District varies somewhat from site to site. That is to say, currently schools or individual counselors determine how students are programmed into math courses. For example, at some schools, students who score proficient in 8th grade Algebra might move directly to Geometry in 9th grade, while their lower-performing peers might take high school Algebra. (I am reading between the lines here, but I believe this is why the proposal recommends the District adopt a course sequence for “all middle and all high schools.”)
- High school Algebra has been identified (not only in our district, but nationwide) as one of the primary gatekeepers in determining whether students succeed or fail in their attempts to achieve the college dream.
- Students who fail high school Algebra must repeat the course, often multiple times. In fact, the failure rate is so high at some high schools, that many have created their own subdivisions of Algebra courses: one for first-time 9th graders, and another for “repeater” students.
It doesn’t take a degree in math to see that our current system for delivering math instruction is doing a great disservice to a majority of our students.
Common Core aligned math means changes to our current course sequence
Next year will be the first year SFUSD will implement a new course sequence aligned with the new Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSS-M). Commissioner Norton identified the key question on parents minds based on comments from her blog:
Is the rigor students need going to be represented in the new course sequence?
As I said, I’m not a math teacher. Whether or not the new CCSS-M aligned course sequence produces better outcomes, I cannot predict. Nonetheless, it seems SFUSD would be hard pressed to do worse with the new course sequence than we are doing under the current system.
I trust our district’s math team and the classroom teachers they work with to make significant improvements in the way math is taught in SFUSD in the future. As “math experts”, the SFUSD Math Department team is deeply versed in the new standards and their applications to instruction. In fact, much of this knowledge comes from their work piloting CCSS-M instruction with actual teachers in classrooms throughout our district. (My daughters’ current teacher is one of the great teachers piloting CCSS-M instruction this year…THANK YOU Ms. Tam!) For these reasons I hope the new plan has been/will be approved and we can move forward to improve math instruction for all students.
This is the point in the post where we come to the issue no one wants to talk about… (or at least say out loud.)
Now let’s talk about the conversation going on between the lines. Some of the concerns voiced by parents about the ability of a new course sequence to provide “rigorous” instruction for students who excel in math, are really thinly veiled attempts of a select group of parents who wish to segregate their kids from other “lower performing” students. Rachel Norton delicately alludes to this issue in her post by stating:
…there is a lack of trust in the district’s ability to differentiate instruction for students with high math ability.
At this point you’re probably saying, “Hold on! Don’t you think you’re going a little too far with this inference? Shouldn’t parents have the right to ensure that high-performing kids have opportunities to pursue advanced math instruction where they are able?”
The answer here has more to do with feelings then with actual facts.
The answer here has more to do with feelings then with actual facts.
Although obvious tracking programs, which were the norm when I attended school, are now viewed as politically incorrect, schools eager to please “high performing parents” have historically found ways to keep the practice in place under a different guise. During my work in schools in the Bay Area, I have seen how schools use course numbers (e.g. Algebra vs. Geometry), honors and “gifted” classes to effectively track students at the very beginning of their 9th grade year. In some cases, in order to enter a selective program within a school, say an engineering magnet program, students might also be required to take middle school prerequisites, courses which may not be available to all students. These types of discriminatory policies have effectively eliminated opportunities for black and brown students or those from “low-performing” middle schools.
Not only is this practice morally abhorrent, there is no relevant data to support that it works. According to the research shared at the Board of Ed meeting, high-performing students don’t do better academically when segregated from their lower-performing peers. Research DOES show, however, that students tracked into courses with lower performing peers fall farther and farther behind.
The research paper provided by the Math Department cites an excerpt written by professor Maika Watanabe, of San Francisco State University, titled “Why should I Care About Detracking? What’s Wrong with tracking?”
“Research consistently demonstrates that students in lower-tracked classes are not afforded the same quality of instruction as students in higher-tracked classes. They get the least-experienced teachers, they do work that does not exercise critical thinking skills, and they experience low expectations, even from well-meaning teachers (Finley, 1984; Oakes, 2005; Page, 1991). The gaps in skills and content knowledge across tracks grow over time, making movement from low- to high-tracked classes virtually impossible without additional support.”
Anyone committed to educational equity knows that the previous system of honors and “gifted” courses in our district middle and high schools is just a means of appeasing anxious parents who want to segregate their “above average” children from their lower-performing peers. Unfortunately this practice has persisted because, middle and high income families bring schools a lot of political capital, financial resources and higher test scores. In the past, some school and district leaders have been reticent to break up this discriminatory practice for fear of loosing “valuable” families.
Even though this important issue is not overtly stated, it is clearly implied in the new proposal and supporting documents provided to the Board. And thankfully, it seems with the implementation of the new standards, it is also one the District Math Department means to address.
Anyone committed to educational equity knows that the previous system … was just a means of appeasing anxious parents who wanted to segregate their children from their lower-performing peers.
Looking at District data, we see it confirms what the research tells us. The practice of tracking students has been failing our students miserably, and has served as one of the primary gatekeepers preventing graduation and college access for an inordinate number of black and brown students in our schools. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long for us to do something about it…
For the record this is not just a San Francisco problem. And it’s one I’m sure the architects of the CCSS-M meant to correct.
Thankfully, the new Standards provide an opportunity for all of us to reexamine both the content we teach (the what) and the ways this content is delivered (the how.) The shifts in instruction brought about by the new standards also give us a chance to reexamine business as usual in all our schools.
So what should we be talking about?
Assuming most parents (let alone most educators) won’t fully understand the instructional implications of the new standards until we are well underway with implementation, why is this conversation important? Instead of asking whether the new course sequence will be rigorous enough, I believe the underlying question that the Math Department and Commissioner Norton may be indirectly trying to address is:
As we make the shift to the new standards, how can SFUSD better communicate with families, especially those invested in the status quo, about the logical and ethical reasons for making important changes to academic programs in all our schools?
Change is upon us.
This spring will mark the first time in many years that students in SFUSD (and throughout the state) will not take STAR tests in English and math, and will instead pilot the new CCSS aligned Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests. Next year, in 2014-2015, students will participate in the full-fledged assessment, the results of which will be reported to families, schools and districts. In preparation for this, the Math Department has no doubt developed a plan to implement the new CCSS-M district wide next fall. I am probably safe in assuming that this plan includes a means of getting necessary resources (e.g. books) and professional learning to each and every teacher and principal in the district.
Along with this important work, it is my hope that the district is also working diligently on a communication plan to help non-math teachers, support staff, parent liaisons and … yes … PARENTS understand the rationale for shifts in district instructional policies so we can all work in concert with the district in implementing these exciting new changes in our schools.
What do you think about all this?
Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.
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