Life-long Learning

Common Core Aligned Math Means Big Changes to SFUSD’s Current Course Sequence

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:

Common Core Aligned Math: With the transition to the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSS-M), what course sequence supports college and career readiness for all students?

SFUSD Proposed Math SequenceCommissioner Norton shared the SFUSD Math Department board presentation on her blog (thank you!) I encourage you to review it along with the proposed new math sequence and adjoining research paper and agree with her that these documents are well put together and provide important information to consider when contemplating changes to our current program.

Common Core Aligned Math: In viewing the documents shared by the SFUSD Math Department, I see a few key take-aways:

SFUSD 2014 8-10 grade Proficiency

  • 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%.

Common Core Aligned Math: 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.

Common Core Aligned Math: 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.

Common Core Aligned Math: 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.

Common Core Aligned Math: Research 

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.

Common Core Aligned Math: 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?

Common Core Aligned Math: 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.

Common Core Aligned Math: What do you think about all this?

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21 thoughts on “Common Core Aligned Math Means Big Changes to SFUSD’s Current Course Sequence

  1. I’m a strong proponent of access and equity, but there is a wide disparity in talent and interest in math. There is wide variation in the willingness to put the necessary hard work into mastering complex concepts. Much of the motivation for doing this comes from the sense of achievement that one gets from consistently being challenged, and from consistently meeting those challenges.

    Speaking from personal experience, my daughter is getting very little of value from her current middle-school math class. She is not challenged by the material, and is starting to voice the opinion that math is not particularly interesting.

    The teachers that are asked to differentiate instruction are often under-skilled, under-trained or under-resourced. Differentiation as it’s practiced resolves to the teachers asking her to tutor other students. That’s ok for some portion of the class, but she is not being taught at a level that provides the necessary challenge to maintain her interest.

    The SFUSD is playing a dishonest game of asserting that we can have it all: everyone can be equally challenged in a heterogenous class that is covering the same material. This is manifestly false, and nothing I’ve seen from the district shows me that they care to address the issue forthrightly.

    I get that the district’s goal is to maximize the number of kids meeting some minimum standard. My goal as a parent is to make sure that my daughter–and other children whose passion for math has not yet been extinguished–maintains the joy of meeting difficult challenges.

    It saddens me that the district is consistently willing to sacrifice the needs of children who need extra challenges. But it angers me that they do so while pretending that they have the any concern at all for those kids.

    1. Thank you for your comments. First off, I want to acknowledge your frustration as a parent with the current system. The data that the district presented shows that your experience is not uncommon. I have heard this many times from parents and seen it for myself in many of the classrooms I have observed. The fact that the District is “working on it” doesn’t address the problems you are facing in supporting your daughter’s academic success and overall happiness in school.

      I think you really hit the nail on the head when you say, “The teachers that are asked to differentiate instruction are often under-skilled, under-trained or under-resourced.” Those same teachers would not do better for our children in tracked classes. Poor instruction is poor instruction. I can speak from experience as a teacher that differentiation is challenging. But shouldn’t all classrooms differentiated? Don’t we all learn in different ways? Have different strengths and challenges? interests and aptitudes? I have twin girls who are both high achievers. It has been very interesting to watch them as they master learning at each stage. The research shows that tracking isn’t helping low OR high performing kids. As you said, the problem is hiring and supporting highly skilled teachers and giving them time and resources to best meet the needs of all kids. If a teacher is ill prepared or overwhelmed, a special class won’t help.

      I disagree however that the district is “willing to sacrifice” the needs of the few high achieving students for those who need more help. Your daughter is experiencing boredom and frustration while others experience low self esteem and academic failure. All students are loosing this way. I do believe the new standards will create some positive changes. The key to this though will be implementation. How well will the District be able to support teachers, especially unskilled ones, in really delivering what the new standards promise?

  2. You write: “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.”

    I’d add that this facile dismissal of my concerns–that they represent simply the desire to segregate my child from the rest of the kids at her school–is more than a little insulting, and shows a simplistic and simple-minded understanding of what motivates parents. Not a good way to promote a dialog about this important issue.

    1. Matt, again, thank you for your comments. I think your are articulating a lot of feelings that go unaddressed in this important conversation. I don’t meant to insult you or any other parent for that matter. Especially when we advocate for our child’s access to the best quality instruction. I guess what I’m questioning, is the rationale that we can’t “have it all.” Are you saying that we have to choose between serving some students over others? It’s this premise that I’m trying to challenge.

      If we really fully implement the new content standards, we will be doing more than teaching to a minimum set of expectations. We will be teaching students how to think like mathematicians, which involves understanding how math works both in the real world and on an abstract level. If done well, students will understand not only specific math concepts, but their relationship to one another and the world at large. This is very challenging–I think. But, as you state, the District will have to provide the resources and support to make it a reality.

      1. I’m with Matt 100% on this.

        Parent of kids in public elementary school. Private for middle school will be a real stretch for us but the Math changes may be the last straw.

        I’m not going to have them be bored in school, nor am I going to tolerate insinuations of being an elitist or a segregationist.

        I work very long days and then I come home and work very long evenings with my kids academics. That effort shows in their performance at school. If that hurts other kids’ feelings who sit in front of the TV 3 hours a night, I can only say TOO BAD.

        1. Wow! It seems you missed my point. Bad teaching will persist with bad instruction. Labeling a class “Algebra” won’t make it more challenging. The key is the content (what’s being taught) and the instruction (how it’s taught.) Good teachers teach all students well because they know the content and how to engage students where they’re at, no matter what their level.

          So, what I am hearing you say is: If someone’s kids are struggling in Math it’s because they are lazy or you are a bad parent (’cause your kids are watching too much TV, and you are not helping them with homework), thus they deserve to be segregated in low level, un-challenging classes. If that is your argument, I’m not insinuating, it sounds elitist.

          1. I understood all of your points perfectly well.  I just disagree.

            If you take:
            – 10 kids who are ready for polynomials
            – 10 kids struggling with basic multiplication
            – 1 best math teacher in the world

            and put them all in one classroom, one of those groups of kids is going to get short-changed.  Period.

            Hoping for superteacher to fly in and fix it is wishful thinking that does a disservice to everyone. If you doubt this, it’s because you have never spent time trying to help out in a middle school math class (I have).  

            As to the rest: I believe that kids who work hard and have an aptitude deserve to have a teacher who has time to challenge them. I believe this is how they get a chance to get ahead. And I believe they deserve that chance regardless of their socioeconomic status.

            The word for that is ‘meritocracy.’  It’s actually pretty much the opposite of elitism.

            As a person of color of relatively modest means, it’s really frustrating to be told (in the name of social justice, no less!) that my kids don’t deserve to be challenged unless I can afford private school. (I don’t know if I can).

            But by ending the math tracks, this is exactly what SFUSD is telling me. Unless I’m rich, my kids don’t deserve a chance to fulfill their potential.

            And if I’m unhappy about that, I’m an elitist? Really?

          2. As a parent (and educator) I will be the first to say your anger is justified if your child is bored in school. Nonetheless, it sounds elitist to say some kids deserve to be challenged and some don’t. All kids deserve good teachers.

            And, yes, I have taught 35 kids in a public “comprehensive” high school classroom (some of whom could not read) and all of my students were challenged, most of the time. What did I need as a teacher to support my work? What could be improved? Smaller class sizes, class aides, extra prep time, more resources…. Tracking? no.

            I think we can agree, math instruction, esp. at the secondary level is in great need of improvement for both high and low performing students. Nonetheless, the research shows tracking is not helping high performers, and it is actually harming low-performers. It doesn’t make sense to argue to continue a system that doesn’t work.

            That said, it’s obvious to me from the comments below that there are many parents (especially at the middle school level) who feel SFUSD has failed their children. That’s not acceptable. SFUSD’s plan to align with the new CCSS – Math standards will hopefully improve things in the future. But, it is still unclear what is being done to fix problems for current middle school students.

          3. “That said, it’s obvious to me from the comments below that there are many parents…who feel SFUSD has failed their children. That’s not acceptable.”

            It seems like we agree about a lot of things.

            But I’ve read everything you’ve written here several times, and here’s the thing I still don’t understand:

            In your opinion, how *exactly* is getting rid of tracking actually going to fix things for high-performing kids who are already bored in the current system?

            To echo Matt’s comments earlier: what exactly is the mechanism that will make that happen?

            Until someone describes that mechanism for me, I can only assume that it doesn’t exist, and that the real answer here is simply that helping high-performing kids is not the goal.

          4. When you ask what the specific mechanism is for meeting needs of current students, its a good question. I am not a math teacher, nor can I speak for the Math Department. It’s my assumption, that the new math plan seeks to address current problems. But, I haven’t seen any district wide system to address your current concerns. That doesn’t mean it’s not in the works, or in place… but it apparently hasn’t been widely communicated to parents like you or I. Additionally, each site has a math dept chair who is responsible for working with the administration and teachers to address specific site implementation. They are ultimately responsible for coming up with a plan to support students at your child’s school, and you have every right to know what they are doing to ensure your child is getting an excellent education.

            If that isn’t working, never underestimate the power you have in advocating for your child’s learning. Here are some resources which I’d suggest to get results.:

            Contact the District Math Dept. directly via their new website:
            File a complaint: (This will start a “ticket” which must be resolved. You can call or email your complaint to Ramon Martinez. It’s can be open or anonymous.)
            Email Board of Education Commissioners:

            As I said before, tracking won’t fix poor instruction. Teachers may say they are unable to meet the needs of high performing students due to low performers, but that’s often just an indicator of a poor instructional system. I am not a math teacher and don’t know your child or the teacher involved, thus it would be irresponsible of me to “prescribe” a solution. If you are interested in discussing it further, I’d be happy to share ideas and also help to connect you with resources where appropriate. Shoot me an email and we can talk alison.m.collins[at]gmail[dot]com

          5. I really appreciate the time and thought you’ve put into this.

            At the end of the day, the answer still amounts to “hope for the best” and “here’s the complaint form if it doesn’t work out.”

            I realize you aren’t an expert in this and it isn’t fair to expect more detail. But I do think it’s fair to expect more detail from *someone*. AFAICT, no one at SFUSD or on the board has any answers at all. Which is extremely disappointing for all of the reasons I outlined earlier.

            Again, I can only conclude that SFUSD simply doesn’t care about addressing the needs of high performers. Which makes perfect sense because there is currently no political mandate to address them.

            Anyway. Even if they don’t resolve the issue for me, I do sincerely appreciate your thoughts here.

  3. I hear a lot of wishful thinking in your words and in the district’s promises. What I don’t understand is this: what POSSIBLE mechanism will result in my daughter being taught more challenging material as the result of the teacher having to teach to students with a much wider range of ability and motivation?

    “Teaching students how to think like mathematicians?” How does that work, exactly? I’ve seen very little evidence that teachers and administrators have the slightest clue about what it means to think like a mathematician. And yet they assert that they can take kids in classes of 35 students with a WIDER range of math experiences, teach them a uniform curriculum, and that now, this time they’ll magically all be equally challenged.

    In reality, here is what will happen: the kids in most need will get the most attention, and those that are at the leading edge of the material will be relegated to tutoring the less experienced.

    I don’t have anything against tutoring, except that it’s a cop-out. Children who are ready to move on to new, more challenging material do not get the same benefit by teaching the old material to their peers.

    The people citing Burris et al., (2006) claim that it shows no significant difference in performance among high achievers. (I don’t know what the paper really claims, since it’s behind a paywall.) That’s the only concrete basis ever made for the claim that this change will be good for high achievers as well, and it’s weak or misleading.

    I get the need for equity. I’m wiling to make compromises for the sake of the betterment of all children. But I’m insulted that the district thinks they can feed me a line of bullshit and that I’ll accept it uncritically. Or that my concerns can be dismissed as arising from a desire to “segregate” my children from their peers.

  4. Count me in with another bored to tears in math class middle schooler. Her teacher’s STATED approach to differentiated instruction is that 2 days a week the kids do “group work,” which for my child means she tutors the other kids in her group who didn’t really understand the material when it was taught to the class. Oh, and 1 days a week they use an on-line math program. Ultimately, this means my child gets 2 days/week of math instruction, and it’s usually material she has seen before (seriously — she has been factoring integers since 5th grade. They’re teaching it again this year…)

    I think the problem with the research that is cited is that it looks at test scores. High-achieving math students, who are, for example, scoring in the 95th percentile in math, won’t become low performing if new material isn’t introduced — they’ll just be bored and irritated, which isn’t captured in standardized tests.

    Having grown up with “tracking” since grade 2, I will admit to being slow to warm to the idea of “differentiated instruction.” Now that I have an 8th grader and a 1st grader, I really see tremendous advantages to heterogeneous grouping in the lower grades — though even in K and 1 SFUSD does some homogenous grouping during ELD (English Language Development) time. I’m even OK with some of the heterogeneous grouping I’m seeing in middle school — my daughter’s social studies teacher, for example, really seems to *get* differentiated instruction. But in math? Sorry. My kid deserves to see new material, and the kids who didn’t get the concept the 1st (or 2nd, or 3rd, or 4th…) time it was taught? They deserve to learn it from a professional.

    I do know that homogeneous grouping has, for many years, served as a stand-in for racial segregation. I’ll just have to ask you to believe that this is *not* my reason for wanting this. FWIW, my caucasian daughter is by far a minority in her current school, which has been a great experience for her.

    I’m glad SFUSD is trying to establish a coherent math strategy. I like that the new curriculum uses less of the “spiral teaching” that has led to ad-infinitum repeats of some material. But, I really dislike that it has no plans for expanding instruction for those kids who are ready for it.

    1. It is very disheartening to read your comments. Making higher performing students class tutors, IS NOT DIFFERENTIATION! Neither is computer time, though it can be a component of good differentiated instruction. All teachers have access to student performance data from STAR tests and the District’s Common Learning Assessments (CLAs). And, it is a district expectation that teachers provide instruction that is engaging for students at all levels. You have every right to demand that your child not be bored to tears doing math work she has already mastered. It sounds like you have already raised your concerns with the teacher. Unfortunately, this sounds like the teacher may either be unskilled, or lack the support necessary to fix the problem. If you are interested in pursuing this, feel free to email me and we can talk offline about possible solutions.

    2. I so often hear “my student is bored” but rarely are those classes – especially honors classes- really pushing students beyond fact fluency into conceptual understanding and application. Traditional, tracked “honors” classes are the worst about having kids sit in rows, listen to math lecture and do problem sets from the “challenging” textbooks. The whole point of CCSS is to include mathematical practices. In the district in which I work, we’ve started using applied problems and focusing on the math practices and our “high level” kids are shutting down left and right. The other day one asked me, “What do you mean solve the problem in a different way? I’m done.” The lack of perseverance when pushed to extend their thinking beyond basic algorithms is astonishing. The my kid is bored argument misses the whole point. Granted, many math teachers don’t have the training and resources necessary to really teach this way, but that’s still no defense for tracking.

      1. Thank you so much for your comment! I couldn’t agree more. I was put in “gifted” classes and was just as bored as I had been in regular classes. CCSS Math holds the promise of more challenging approach to math instruction. Nonetheless, I think teachers and parents will need to “see” it in action before it can be fully supported and embraced.

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  6. How are kids evaluated under differentiated teaching math classes? Will some kids get A’s that mean they have obtained basic levels of working knowledge while others get A’s that mean they mastered deeper understanding of concepts? What happens when a strong performing math student gives up and opts for doing the basics? Does differentiation mean teachers rely more on their initial evaluation of students and can that reinforce stereotypes? I don’t see how delaying Algebra until 9th grade will improve equity. In theory, I’m a huge fan of differentiated teaching, but I don’t see it happening with the teacher ratios we have. Right now, I’m experiencing it on both sides with one kid. My kid loves and excels at math but is lagging in reading. On the math side, she is stuck with repetitive tasks and the only up side is that she gets to draw when she finishes tasks early. On the reading side, after getting no more specific insight than “practice more” we gave up on school as our primary source of help and hired a private tutor. That really is differentiated instruction – those who can afford tutors get taught. Differentiation could be equitable if we had more teachers and more math and literacy specialists on staff, but we don’t.

    1. You bring up some really great questions. And I am sorry to hear that you and your children are frustrated with instruction. It sounds like your children’s teachers may not have the skill, time and/or support needed to design high quality instruction for your kids. Your concerns highlight two key issues: grading policy & differentiated instruction. Though these are definitely related to one another, I believe they are separate.

      The topic of grading is one I think we SHOULD be discussing more. Even though grades have a big impact on students, I never received any instruction or professional development on how to equitably grade. Elementary grading is a bit more transparent (maybe) because it is done based on mastery of standards. But, at the middle and high school level, each teacher sets their own formula for calculating a grade and whether you get an A in one class or a C in another is pretty arbitrary.

      Ultimately, it is my belief that grades should communicate to students and families a student’s ability to master learning expectations. At the middle and high school level, it is entirely up to teachers to determine specific learning expectations for students (based on the standards). Teachers also determine the requirements for achievement at each level. Add in “work habits” “cooperation” and “class participation” and this mix gets really complicated and subjective. Hopefully, teachers are explicit and transparent about their expectations so students and parents understand how grades are calculated. Unfortunately, grading policy is often a mystery. Differentiation or no, whether teachers grade fairly or not will remain the same (unfortunately.)

      As far as differentiation goes, it’s hard to imagine what good differentiation looks like because it looks very different from what many of us have experienced in school. I can’t explain what it might look like in a math class, because I’m not a math teacher. But in an Language Arts class here’s how it has played out in my teaching: If we are working on the skill of summarizing key points from a reading, I could ask ALL students to read 2 readings and summarize 3 key points from each, but assign readings (of the same topic) at various levels. Higher level readers could read passages that were more complex with a higher vocabulary and lower level readers could read a smaller amount of text with a less complex structure. All students could summarize key points in what they read and participate in class discussions. When I ask them to demonstrate understanding, I’d ask some students to write a paragraph of with 2 key points (my developing writers) while others might be asked to write 3 key point with a concluding sentence (my advanced writers.) In this way, I could really customize learning and support while challenging all students at their level. The number of students is not necessarily a factor in whether I could be effective (I’ve taught these types of high school lessons to classes of 20 or 35). What I’d need to be effective creating a lesson like this is the time to find suitable readings and create differentiated student handouts.

      That’s were we as parents can and should be advocating. The District Strategic Plan states that instruction should be driven by student need (data). Teachers will have to stop making excuses about having to “teach lower skilled students”, and schools will have to provide more planning time and support to help teachers make it a reality.

  7. Oakland Unified school district adopted a policy that allows for acceleration at the middle school. That’s right – OUSD, a district that is just as committed to its lowest performing students as SFUSD is, recognized that some middle school students are ready for challenging math. In Oakland a child can take Math 8/Algebra I in 8th grade and then Geometry in 9th grade.

    1. Thanks for sharing this info. Even though I’m not there yet, (as my girls are only entering 4th grade next year) I’m very interested in how schools will support students who want to excel while implementing the new CCSS.

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