Life-long Learning

Let’s clear some things up about the SFUSD Math Sequence, shall we?

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.

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.

  • Read about NY teachers Union and CCSS here and here.

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.

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 🙂

What do you think? Does any of this make sense to you? Do you have any ideas on ways to support our schools in providing high quality math instruction for all our kids? How can the district improve family engagement and communication? Please write your ideas in the comments below!

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6 thoughts on “Let’s clear some things up about the SFUSD Math Sequence, shall we?

  1. In the public school I attended they let me take math courses at the local community college for high school credit. I’m not an amazing math student and yet I finished Calculas III my junior year of high school. The untracked math schedule seems incredibly unambitious for all students and I think that is why many are balking at it. My advice would be aim higher or give students other opportunities to advance like the ones I had.

    1. This sounds like it was a great opportunity and one that might be interesting to explore. I have no problem with providing options at the eleventh grade on. But, sorting kids in eighth grade creates lots of problems. When you “ability sort” large groups of students (enough for whole classes of students) it becomes tracking and invariably segregation within our schools.

      That said, there is arguably 1 or 2% of our student body who need more challenging curriculum in math AND English. I’d like to focus more on how we differentiate for these students in a way that meets their need and doesn’t have negative impacts on average and low achieving students.

  2. I don’t think you need to “track” classes. I just don’t see why you wouldn’t set the standards high and differentiate down as needed instead of the other way around. I feel like the people advancing the new curriculem often approach math with the bias that it is only neccessary for balancing a check book or understanding a poll. This sells it way short. A strong foundation in math is critical for a wide range of subjects. Children will never be able to see why math is important unless they learn the math (calculas for instance) and then subsequently have the chance to apply it (in a physics for instance). If you’re not learning calculas until the 12th grade it’s too late to ever use and appreciate it thus perpetuating the idea that it is not useful in the real world. This does a disservice to all students not just high achieving ones.

    1. Good points. I agree and wish I’d had better and more engaging math instruction in my day. That said, there is an ongoing debate raging in the education community about how much math all students should take to be “college ready” and there are even some who advocate getting rid of advanced algebra. I don’t have a position on this. Even so, the new standards are MUCH MORE complex and challenging and I like that my girls are already learning how “math works” even at the 4th grade level. It’s an entirely different approach than the one most of us got. I am excited to see how it looks when they are in middle school and beyond.

  3. I do agree that tracking is bad. However, I don’t agree with teaching algebra in 9th grade. Many top schools teach 3 years of calc in high school. A lot of my friends who do STEM at top schools say that those who do well are those who come from outside the U.S. or top districts where they teach levels of math beyond intro to calc. This enables them to do higher level of science in high schools as well. As the world becomes more globalized, equity within our city becomes less important than equity with the world.

    But even with local equity, no one has mentioned the gap between private and public schools. In many private SF schools, they teach algebra in middle schools for everyone. Some even teach geometry. They have to because they need to prep their kids for the SSAT and top private HSs. SF already has a high proportion people in Private. Also, public schools down south are not doing this and have better STEM programs than us. They are required to use the same coin core standards SF has to use. Their algebra 1 is in theory the same as ours. Schools in San Jose and Cupertino always do better than SF in competitions such as the Intel STS. SF only had one semifinalist and she is from the Lowell-UCSF Science Research program.

    It does seem weird that to take calc under the the SFUSD plan, you have to be an “honors” like student by taking a compression class. Calculus is now generally a regular course taken by people students who are considered honors and non honors people. I tell my peers outside SF that to take calc you have to be an accelerated student and they all laugh at me.

    Also it is worrying who is supporting the plan and who isn’t. If you look at BOE meetings, only teachers from Mission and Burton have supported it while the Lowell teachers didn’t. Also, I heard on the grapevine that parents at Wash, Lincoln, and Presidio (also high achieving schools) have reservations. Why is it that the teachers at the highest performing school object while teachers at the lowest performing schools love it. This only reinforced the stereotype that SFUSD teaches to the lowest common denominator. Also, why do schools have to do the same thing. Why can’t teachers and schools implement common core to their own community’s needs based on the state common core recommendations? In the UK, GCSE exam results have gone up for low income minorities since individual schools have been allowed to make their own decisions.

    Another issue is the college application process. How will people wishing to apply to STEM programs/colleges be able to take the SAT Math II and SAT science tests needed to apply and if they get in, how will they compete with everyone else.

    1. You’ve raised a lot of questions, which obviously can’t be answered here. But, I do want to take issue with several of your assertions. This is the first year implementing the new math course sequence and curriculum. Under this plan, Algebra IS taught in 8th grade and is also taught in 9th grade, along with geometry and statistics in both years, and at a much deeper (conceptual) level I might add. In the past, math concepts were organized around course titles, rather than content. The new common core standards address content, (algebra, geometry, measurement, statistics…) which is taught at various grade levels and builds over time each year. With this framework in mind, one might argue students are learning algebra even earlier than the eighth grade.

      In this sense, it seems a lot of parent concern stems from course titles (labels) as opposed to actually what is being taught in class. The new course sequence addresses content and seeks to teach at a much higher level than the previous standards require. Whether this plan pans out across the district is where I believe the real questions lie. Rather than quibbling about course titles, parent engagement and focus could be much better spent on monitoring and supporting IMPLEMENTATION of the plan.

      And as for college enrollment questions, UC schools will be making many adjustments to the college enrollment system based on recent changes to the standards and course patterns all over the country. Specifically, the SAT is being/has been redesigned, and admissions officers will be retooling the lenses that they review applications to align with new teaching practices. It is my understanding that admissions departments are very nuanced in the ways they look at applications and take into consideration not only the names of titles listed on applications, but also the context of course offerings available at a given school and district. That said, I doubt our students will suffer any disadvantages in this area, as long as they are well prepared to COMPETE in classes once they are admitted (again… a focus on content and student mastery over titles/labels).

      Finally, your references to “high-performing” schools vs. low-performing schools perceptions of “acceleration”/tracking in middle school make sense. Students in “High-performing” schools like Lowell (as well as private schools) have benefited from tracking at the expense of comprehensive schools that are tasked with teaching ALL students. When students “don’t make the cut” or need more support, they get dropped. This may or may not have anything to do with instruction, and more to do with “creaming”. Basically schools get the results they do, because results are built into the system.

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