From ‘algebra for all’ to ‘algebra for none’

Thanks to the “algebra for all” movement, nearly half of eighth-graders were taking algebra or geometry in 2013, writes Brookings researcher Tom Loveless in High Achievers, Tracking, and the Common Core. In the Common Core era, only advanced — and advantaged — students will be accelerated.

California pushed 59 percent of students into eighth-grade algebra, though not everyone passed. Now districts have no incentive to offer algebra (or geometry) in middle school. In well-to-do Silicon Valley districts, parents are demanding eighth-grade algebra so their kids will be prepared for AP Calculus by 12th grade.

But urban middle schools with low-income, minority students usually place all students in the same math classes, writes Loveless. Smarter students can’t get ahead.

Accelerated math will survive in affluent school districts, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Parent pressure has been fierce. But students in lower-income districts won’t be on track for AP Calculus, unless they catch up in summer school or double up in math in high school.

Hector Flores, of San Jose, tried to ensure his son was on track to take calculus in high school — even sending him to a summer math institute. But the Evergreen School District placed him in an “integrated” Common Core eighth-grade math class, where he’s reviewing much of what he already learned. “He’s literally caught in the crack” of the Common Core transition, said Flores, a former math teacher. Now, to take calculus, his son will have to take an extra class in high school.

Low-income, black and Latino students who excel in math should have the chance to take the algebra-to-calculus track, writes Loveless. It’s not elitism. It’s equity.

Because of their animus toward tracking, some critics seem to support a severe policy swing from Algebra for All, which was pursued for equity, to Algebra for None, which will be pursued for equity.  It’s as if either everyone or no one should be allowed to take algebra in eighth grade.

Barry Garelick taught in a middle school that lets very few students take algebra in eighth grade, he writes in Out in Left Field.  A student asked him if she’d qualified for Algebra I. “I don’t want to be with the stupid people,” she said.

“In the name of egalitarianism and the greater common good,” the vast majority of students will take a watered-down Core version of algebra in ninth grade, he writes. They’ll end up as “stupid people.”

Structure leads to speedy degree

While most community college students spend years pursuing a credential — and often fail to complete one — accelerated students at Indiana’s Ivy Tech complete a two-year degree in 11 months. The program is designed for first-generation students from low-income families.

‘Scary smart’ — and invisible

Exceptionally smart students “are often invisible in the classroom, lacking the curricula, teacher input and external motivation to reach full potential,” writes Science Daily, citing a Vanderbilt study that followed gifted students for 30 years.

 The 320 high-IQ students went on to become business leaders, software engineers, physicians, attorneys, and leaders in public policy, reports Who Rises to the Top?, published in Psychological Science.

Despite their remarkable success, researchers concluded that the profoundly gifted students had experienced roadblocks along the way that at times prevented them from achieving their full potential. Typical school settings were often unable to accommodate the rapid rate at which they learned and digested complex material. . . . This resulted in missed learning opportunities, frustration and underachievement, particularly for the exceptionally talented, the researchers suggest.

To reach their full potential, the “scary smart” need “accelerated coursework, AP classes and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers like Peabody’s Programs for Talented Youth” said Harrison Kell, who collaborated on the study.


Teachers lay blame for finals failures

In a suburban Maryland county known for high-performing schools, 62 percent of students flunked their geometry finals in January, 57 percent failed their Algebra 2 exams and 48 percent earned F’s on the precalculus final, reports the Washington Post.

Montgomery County high schools give the same math exams:  For the last five years, results have been poor countywide, though worse at some schools.

Under county policy, students can fail the final but pass the course.

For example, with C’s in each of a semester’s two quarters, an E on the final exam would still result in a C for the course. A student with two B’s going into the final exam needs only a D or better on the test to maintain a B for the course, according to the chart. The exam, worth 25 percent of a course grade, holds sway but can be greatly outmatched by daily classroom performance over time.

“Maybe the teenagers are blowing it off because the district is blowing it off,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies student achievement. “If the district doesn’t take the exams seriously, I don’t understand why they give them.”

Failure rates are high in biology, English and history finals as well.

Math teachers at Poolesville High school start their list of causes with acceleration of students through math to meet “unrealistic targets.”  Too many students don’t fully understand math, the teachers write.

Honors math courses are not substantively different from regular courses (to allow greater upward mobility), and as many students as possible have been placed in honors.  The result is that higher-performing students lack sufficient challenge and the small percentage of students not in honors find themselves in classes with no peer role models and a culture of failure.

. .  .The ubiquitous use of calculators in the early grades has resulted in students who lack number sense and basic skills and thus struggle to make the leap to algebra.

In all content areas, Montgomery County has undercut students’ motivation to work hard, the Poolesville math teachers charge.

High school students know they can fail the final and pass the course. They can skip assignments and receive the minimum grade of 50 percent.  Absenteeism is up because students face no consequences for cutting class.

Homeschoolers send 6 kids to college by 12

Homeschooling has worked well for Mona Lisa and Kip Harding. Six of their 10 children in the Alabama family started college by the age of 12;  the youngest four, all under 10, also plan to start college early.

“We’re just average folks,” says the mother, who trained as a nurse. Husband Kip, a helicopter pilot, didn’t complete college till he was 25 and serving in the military.

“We find out what their passions are, what they really like to study, and we accelerate them gradually,” she says.

Seth, 12, is studying medieval history at Faulkner University. Brother Keith, 14, is completing a music degree. Heath started at age 11. Now 17, he’s finishing his master’s in computer science. Sister Serennah, 22, will complete medical school in a few weeks and serve as a Navy doctor. Hannah is a spacecraft designer with master’s degrees in math and mechanical engineering. Rosannah became an architect at 18.

The family has an e-book on how to accelerate learning on their College by 12 site.

Gifted + talented = separate + unequal

“Gifted and talented” classes are mostly white and Asian, even at predominantly black and Hispanic schools, reports the New York Times. At P.S. 163 on the Upper West Side, black and Hispanic students make up two-thirds of the student body but only one third of gifted students.

Once schools could set their own criteria for admissions to gifted classes, but since 2008 only students who test very well can qualify. In low-income neighborhoods, schools don’t offer gifted classes because not enough kids ace the test.

(Critics) contend that gifted admissions standards favor middle-class children, many of them white or Asian, over black and Hispanic children who might have equal promise, and that the programs create castes within schools, one offered an education that is enriched and accelerated, the other getting a bare-bones version of the material. Because they are often embedded within larger schools, the programs bolster a false vision of diversity, these critics say, while reinforcing the negative stereotypes of class and race.

Students in gifted classes have a much easier time qualifying for the city’s selective middle and high schools. Only 15 percent of seats at  specialized high schools go to blacks or Hispanic students, who make up 70 percent of enrollment.

Sara K. Bloch’s triplets go to P.S. 163. Leon is in a gifted class, Jason in general education and Felix in “an integrated co-teaching class, which mixes special education students with general education children like Felix.”

“To be completely honest, we feel that this class is probably similar to a regular fifth-grade class,” she said on the day she visited Leon in Ms. Dillon’s class. “Math is the same; all three — they have the same book.”

But Leon does seem to be pushed harder, Ms. Bloch said. He is asked to think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party. She also said that the relationship between the parents and the teachers was more intense at the gifted level, with an expectation of parent involvement and connectedness.

A fifth-grade teacher at the school tells the Times she’d never let her own kids take general education classes at P.S. 163. There are too many kids from “the projects.”

Learning ‘myths’ — or not

Answer Sheet’s Valerie Strauss lists Seven misconceptions about how students learn, which she links to “standardized test-based public school reform.”  The list, which came from the Independent Curriculum Group web site, is based on “21st-century science,” Strauss alleges.

First comes the “myth” that “Basic Facts Come Before Deep Learning.”

This one translates roughly as, “Students must do the boring stuff before they can do the interesting stuff.” Or, “Students must memorize before they can be allowed to think.” In truth, students are most likely to achieve long-term mastery of basic facts in the context of engaging, student-directed learning.

I don’t think anyone argues that students shouldn’t think till they’ve memorized a bunch of facts. People do argue that students think more intelligently — more deeply or critically, if you prefer — if they have a base of knowledge.

Perhaps Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist, will take it up on his new blog.

Some of the other myths are straw men, such as “Rigorous Education Means a Teacher Talking” or  “Covering It Means Teaching It”  or “A Quiet Classroom Means Good Learning.”

But it’s possible fogies think “Teaching to Student Interests Means Dumbing It Down” or “Acceleration Means Rigor.”  The devil is in the details.

“Traditional Schooling Prepares Students for Life” is her final myth/straw man.

Listening to teachers and studying for tests has little to do with life in the world of work. People in the work world create, manage, evaluate, communicate, and collaborate.

My traditional schooling in the mid-20th century  included a lot more than listening to teachers and studying for tests. I did a lot of reading, writing, discussing and even some collaborating. I learned workforce skills too, such as meeting deadlines, adapting to authority figures, dealing with boredom, typing. At more progressive schools, would I have spent more time “engaged” and less time reading under my desk?

Automatically AP

All Federal Way students in grades 6-12 who meet Washington’s state standards are automatically enrolled in accelerated classes, including demanding Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge classes, reports the Huffington Post.

Some 80 percent of the district’s students pass state exams, which suggests it’s not a high bar. Only 30 percent were signing up for advanced programs, which include pre-AP and pre-IB courses for middle-school students.

Enrollment in advanced courses increased by 70 percent this year.  The most demanding classes no longer are primarily white and Asian-American.

Students can opt out of advanced classes with parental permission.  Michael Scuderi, father of a senior at Thomas Jefferson High, which offers IB, says many students aren’t prepared.

“We’ve heard stories of kids that have dropped out of the program, and they’re crushed,” said Scuderi. “Students weren’t told ahead of time everything they were getting themselves into.”

Of 274 11th graders at Thomas Jefferson High automatically enrolled in IB, 43 have dropped at least one course. However,  94 percent of students in advanced classes are passing with a C or better, the district says. Results from AP, IB and Cambridge exams aren’t known yet.

Poll shows support for community colleges

On Community College SpotlightTwo-year colleges are the best bet for some students, poll respondents say.

Acceleration helps high-level remedial students, study finds.