I’ve been reading emails and posts from various parents on the new math sequence and the desire of some parents to implement an “accelerated algebra” tracking in middles school. If you are unfamiliar with this debate, please click here for some background info.
I apologize in advance for this long post, and want to take a moment to provide some context for the debate raging in some SF schools. I’d like to clear up some misinformation I’m seeing flying around (supported with references, of course), and also want reinforce some of the great thinking I’m seeing coming out of this dialogue:
Challenging the status quo
Contrary to some of the rhetoric you may be hearing, the current math sequence is being implemented to fix problems in our education system that have been around since before I was in school (read: institutionalized racism) These barriers have prevented large numbers of students (predominantly black and brown) from accessing college let alone graduating high school. Two barriers the new math sequence seeks to address are also national challenges: 1) the “Algebra gatekeeper” and 2) tracking through honors/gifted classes.
- Read about Algebra barriers nationwide in a 2010 article and in our current district.
- Read about the harms of tracking in a Stanford research paper published in 1994 (before I started teaching!). Read an in depth paper by Education Researcher and tracking expert Jeannie Oakes here:
This has been in the works for a long time.
Although changes to math and honors may seem new to parents because they are being fully implemented district-wide this year, SFUSD did not make sweeping changes to honors or math “quietly or suddenly” as some have said. (I’d chalk this one up to a poorly executed communications plan.) The middle and high school leadership team (also called LEAD) have been phasing out honors in middle schools and high schools over the past five years in both math and English. And, plans to change the math sequence have been in the works since the new CCSS standards were adopted by the state over three years ago.
- Rachel Norton posted information about the math sequence on her blog two times last year BEFORE the board voted to support it. See here and here.
- The math department also developed a new math website last summer based on parent questions with a blog (which I follow). They are very responsive in answering questions I’ve posted there. See it here
Teachers have been involved.
Just because some Lowell math and science teachers are upset, doesn’t mean teachers across the district aren’t supportive of the new math sequence. In fact many of them were authored it. Teachers from every school in the district (300+) were identified to co-create the plan and ensuing curriculum. This is why you haven’t heard the union chiming in on this issue. Consider this a big win for our district math team when other urban districts in NY are currently arguing about the Common Core, (where they are trying to link teacher evaluation with standardized test results… a big no-no in my book!) This anger has also been fueled by frustration with poorly aligned curriculum.
Just think about the teacher sub days we’ve been experiencing these past few years. I know, it’s a lot! But, instead of hiring out curriculum development to an education non-profit (like they did in New York, to the tune of 8 million dollars for math alone!) our district paid teams of teachers to meet, learn, create and pilot new math units of study in their own classrooms last year. I believe this investment will pay off big time in building both teacher knowledge and commitment to teaching math in new ways. These are sweeping changes though, so it will arguably take a few years for all this to be fully implemented in all classrooms.
- Read more about NY’s curriculum challenges.
Parent involvement needs improvement.
School districts have always been poor at communicating policy changes to their parent communities, and unfortunately ours is no different. To be fair, these past few years there have been a glut of changes to communicate about due to shifts in standards, curriculum and assessments.
That said, as someone who worked at both the site and district level (in SFUSD and OUSD) it’s hard to know which issues parents want to provide input on. I have done a lot of parent outreach and have found parents often lack the time or training to meaningfully engage in the ongoing meetings required to flesh out large-scale policy shifts like this. Frankly, I’ve also found that MOST parents are not really interested in the level of discussion required. If they were they’d be teachers right? (present company excluded).
Thus, participation continues to be a struggle at parent meetings throughout our district (and arguably nationwide.) This could be improved through a more robust parent engagement effort on the part of the Office of Family Engagement and the district as a whole but that is a topic for another post…
The real question at hand…
Many parents I speak to understand that tracking hasn’t been worked for all our students, and especially our underserved families. They may want “acceleration” for their kids but feel uncomfortable with the idea that it will harm lower performing children that are in dire need of academic support. Assuming the best of these parents, it does make sense that they feel the district has taken something away from them. And it is fair for them to ask, “How can this new policy serve my child while serving the needs of lower achieving kids in the same classroom? How is this all supposed to work? And, what happens if it doesn’t?”
Ultimately, the answer is teacher skill with differentiation — alongside curriculum and professional development that supports them. This is something the district is deeply invested in. And at the same time, it is a process, and if it’s going to truly happen, it has to happen over time and in deliberate and meaningful ways. Our teachers (and district leaders) are a deeply committed and thoughtful group who are themselves learning about the new standards and new ways to meet students where they are at in diverse classrooms. We don’t want to undervalue or undermine our teachers when we speak of teacher professionalism and learning around differentiation.
At the same time, no parent is OK watching their child’s love of learning slowly fade while each and every teacher catches up to this new way of teaching. Teachers, like students, arrive at their classrooms each year with varying assets and challenges. What happens to student learning when they are not up for the challenge? What assurances can the district and schools give us when our high achieving students grow “bored” of tutoring, or translating, or “doing more worksheets”.
So where do we go from here?
This leads us right back to the three key issues that have been identified in various posts I’ve read. Whatever side of this argument you are on, I think we can all get behind working with the district (both supporting AND advocating) for 1) better communication about district initiatives, 2) more effective engagement in district decision-making, and 3) more transparent and effective systems of accountability for high quality instruction. (This is where we address the challenge of teaching both high- and low-achieving students in differentiated classes.)
To sum it all up: It would be great if we could focus our efforts as a community on ensuring the new math sequence is successful for ALL students and there are clear ways for parents and teachers to address problems when instruction fails.
If you’ve read this far… congratulations! You’re an official education advocate (nerd) like me! Thank you for your interest and engagement in our public schools :)