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.”

Equal access — or punishing achievers?

In pushing for “equal access” to gifted classes, honors tracks and Advanced Placement, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is punishing achievement, charges Checker Finn in Education Next.  Even separating first graders into reading groups may be suspect. What if there are more Asian than Hispanic bluebirds?

 . . . the U.S. is already having huge trouble paying attention to high achievers (some say “gifted and talented”) when we’re preoccupied with low achievers and dire schools. Anything that discourages such attention is bad for American economic growth and competitiveness, not to mention unfair to kids who are ready, willing, and able to soar but have trouble getting the teacher’s attention.

“Old-style tracking led to a lot of dead ends,” Finn concedes. But not every students has the motivation or preparation to succeed in AP courses. Some would prefer “high-quality career and technical education,” if they had the choice.

. . . we want to see more minority kids succeed in AP classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, just as we want to see more boys succeed in English and girls in physics. Insofar as the education system is capable of achieving these goals, however, it needs to strive comprehensively from kindergarten (or preschool) onward. Swatting high schools because elementary schools didn’t send them an ethnically balanced collection of kids ready for AP and IB does not accomplish any educationally desirable end.

Integrated schools could lose their middle-class students, warns Finn. If advanced classes are watered down to accommodate less-prepared students, achievers’ parents will look for challenge elsewhere.

Tracking in Middle School can promote equity by better preparing low-income, black and Latino achievers for AP courses, argues Brookings’ researcher Tom Loveless.

At 19 Baltimore high schools, few AP Bio students pass the AP exam (Photo: Baltimore Sun)

In Baltimore, thousands of low-income students earn A’s and B’s in AP classes, then fail the AP exams and place into remedial courses in college, notes Loveless, citing a Baltimore Sun story. Students have access to AP, but not the preparation they need to succeed.

Accelerated and enriched classes help high achievers learn even more, his research has shown. Yet high-poverty middle schools typically leave achievers isn the same classes as low-performing students. “It’s an injustice,” said Loveless at Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference.

Separate and gifted?

Eliminate gifted tracks in New York City, argue Halley Potter of the Century Foundation and David Tipson of New York Appleseed in the New York Times Room for Debate blog.

Seventy percent of the city’s gifted and talented (G&T) kindergarteners are white and Asian, while 70 percent of students are black and Latino, they write.

“Segregation” harms the education of low-income students. they argue. “At the same time, affluent white and Asian students in the city’s separate G&T classrooms are also denied the cognitive and social benefits that socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms offer.”

Gifted children won’t “be fine” in mixed-ability classes, responds Rick Hess.

. . . we’re putting much at risk when we simply hope that overburdened classroom teachers can provide the teaching and learning that gifted children need. Anyone who has watched a teacher labor to “differentiate” instruction in a classroom that encompasses both math prodigies and English language learners knows it’s unreasonable to expect most teachers to do this well.

Students do best in classrooms with students of similar ability, researcher Bruce Sacerdote writes. “We know from data, from theory and, most important, from decades of experience that ability grouping or tracking can have a big payoff. . . . High-ability students benefit the most from high-ability peers.

Low-SES achievers falter in high school

Black, Latino and low-income achievers — kids who scored in the top quartile as sophomores — lose ground in high school concludes a new Education Trust report, Falling Out of the Lead.

The report looks at sophomores who scored in the top quartile in math and reading. Compared to whites and to students of higher socioeconomic status, top-quartile disadvantaged students complete high school with lower grades and SAT or ACT scores. They’re less likely to pass an AP exam or to apply to a selective college.

“These are the students who arrive at high school most ready to take advantage of rigorous and high-level instruction,” Marni Bromberg, The Education Trust’s research associate and co-author of the report, said in a statement. “But to reach the academic levels that they are capable of, they need exposure to challenging curriculum as well as support and guidance from their schools, including in selecting a college that can really challenge them.”

Blacks and Latinos who started in the top quartile were significantly more likely than high-achieving white students to graduate with a C average.

Displaying EdTrust_FallingOutoftheLead_Fig10.jpgCredit: Education Trust

The report praises Ohio’s Columbus Alternative High School, which pushes nearly all students to college.

A Fordham email suggests college-for-all schools don’t challenge urban achievers. “As Tom Loveless illustrated in a 2009 Fordham report, suburban schools by and large ignored the call to de-track their middle schools and high schools, and kept advanced courses in tact. Urban schools, on the other hand, moved to “heterogeneous groupings. That means the high achievers in the suburbs still get access to challenging, fast-paced courses, while those in the cities generally do not.”

When Dunbar was ‘First Class’

Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School is ” uplifting and maddening,” writes Michael McShane in Education Next.

From its opening in 1870 to the 1960s, the all-black Dunbar High produced “doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business,” writes McShane. Yet, “Dunbar saw a precipitous decline” just as opportunities were opening up for African-Americans.

Equity trumped excellence, he writes.” Rather than educate the best and brightest for placement into top universities and success in work and public service, Dunbar became a standard comprehensive high school that educated everyone residentially zoned to attend it.”

Stewart looks at Dunbar in 1920. Students who passed the admissions test had to meet  “astronomically” high academic standards.  Students were tracked into different levels. Those who couldn’t do the work were sent to Cardozo High, which was vocationally oriented.

The school demanded good behavior.

The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. (“Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.”) The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols (“Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat”) and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.

Nowadays, KIPP leaders have been accused of  “cultural eugenics” for mandating student behavior, writes McShane.

Policies and programs should create opportunities for strivers to excel, writes Mike Petrilli.  “We should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts—the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.”

Two of his suggestions draw from the Dunbar High experience:

Schools must be orderly, safe, high-expectations havens. There’s a movement today to make it harder to suspend or expel disruptive children or to chide charter schools that enforce strict norms of behavior. That’s a big mistake. To be sure, we should use discipline programs that are effective, and sky-high expulsion rates are often the sign of a poorly run school. But we should be at least as concerned—if not more concerned—about the students who are trying to learn and follow the rules as we are about their disruptive peers. If suspending (or relocating) one student means giving 25 others a better chance to learn, let’s do it.High achievers must be challenged and rewarded. As Tom Loveless has shown, the anti-tracking craze that swept through our schools in the 80s and 90s left many suburban schools untouched but wreaked havoc in our poorest urban communities. . . .  high-achieving poor kids forfeited the opportunity to be in “gifted-and-talented” classes, honors tracks, or fast-moving Advanced Placement courses.

In addition, strivers deserve a fair share of resources, Petrilli argues. For example, Pell Grants could be increased if they were reserved for college-ready students.

The return of reading (and math) groups

In the late 1950s, we read Dick, Jane and Sally in our reading groups, the Robins, Bluebirds and Cardinals. My group — the Robins? — got to move on to the more sophisticated Robert and Susan before the end of first grade. Read, Robins! Read, read, read!

Grouping students by ability and performance — once the norm, then verboten — is now back in style, reports the New York Times

Education professors and civil rights advocates attacked tracking in the 1980s and 1990s, arguing that low-income, non-white students often ended up in low-level, low-expectations classes. “The kids who are thought of as the least able end up with the fewest opportunities and resources and positive learning environments,” wrote Jeannie Oakes in Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality.

Education schools told teachers to group students of different abilities together, so the “fast” kids could teach the “slow” kids. Teachers tried to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction for children of very different achievement levels, English fluency and ability (or disability). That proved to be very difficult.

At Public School 156 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which enrolls mostly African-American and Hispanic children, many living in homeless shelters, Cathy Vail randomly sorts her fifth graders at the beginning of the year using lettered sticks. After six weeks of testing and observing them, she shifts them into “teams” of seven or eight.

Children may be assigned to different groups for reading and math, and can switch groups if they have shown progress, struggle to get along with other students in a group or need extra help with a particular lesson.

. . . Working on each week’s set of new vocabulary words, all four groups draw illustrations and write captions using the assigned words, but she encourages team C, her highest-achieving group, to write more complex sentences, perhaps using two new vocabulary words in the same sentence. She also asks children in team C to peer-teach students in the other groups.

“At the end of the day, they’re learning the same words, but just with different levels of complexity and nuance,” she said.

At a New Hampshire schools, teachers have used reading groups for at least a decade and now are creating math groups. Teachers call it “dynamic grouping” to emphasize that students can move to a higher group as they improve.

We had math groups in fourth grade. I built two kinds of fire clock, using a candle and rope, one boy built a sun dial and another created a water clock. We whizzed through fourth-grade math, skipped fifth grade and learned sixth-grade math, which we had to do again in sixth grade.

Ability grouping is not tracking’s evil twin

Flexible ability grouping is not the evil twin of tracking, argues Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, president of the National Association for Gifted Children and a professor of education at Northwestern, in Ed Week.

If committed educators could be easily trained to implement a low-cost intervention that boasted consistent learning gains for all students, headlines would herald the discovery of the educational holy grail.

That low-cost intervention is here and readily available. It’s called ability grouping.

As classrooms become more academically diverse, grouping students by ability — and regrouping as they improve — helps everyone, she writes. A 2010 meta-analysis found benefits in reading. A 2013 study found significant improvements in math and reading for high- and low-performing students.

Tracking sets students on a defined path, writes Olszewski-Kubilius. It’s often permanent. “Flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student’s readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time.”

A stupid way to pick ‘gifted’ students

Our system for identifying “gifted” students isn’t very smart, writes Andrew Rotherham in The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child in Time.

New Yorkers were outraged to learn that “behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs,” he writes. “Scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified.”

But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

New York City uses a test to determine who’s gifted. Some programs require a score at the 90th percentile; others require the 97th percentile.

. . . does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

Affluent, educated parents hire tutors and test prep services to help their kids qualify as gifted.

Rotherham offers three proposals:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. . .  .

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. . . .

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

Numbers 1 and 3 seem like no-brainers. But expanding the definition of  “gifted” has limits.  Many non-genius kids would do well in enriched, challenging classes. But once the reasonably smart kids are in with the exceptionally smart kids, what do you do with the average, slow and very slow students? What happens to unmotivated, poorly behaved students?

“Gifted” hadn’t been invented when I was in high school, but we had five tracks in English, three in most other subjects. I loved Level 1.

The case for ability grouping

Let’s Go Back to Grouping Students By Ability writes Barry Garelick in The Atlantic. The drive for equity in the ’60s and ’70s eliminated tracking. Most K-8 schools now ask teachers to teach students of diverse backgrounds and abilities in the same classroom, using “differentiated instruction,” writes Garelick, who’s starting a second career as a math teacher. In high schools, what used to be “college prep” is now called “honors.” Courses labeled “college prep” are aimed at low achievers.

Unfortunately, the efforts and philosophies of otherwise well-meaning individuals have eliminated the achievement gap by eliminating achievement. Exercises in grammar have declined to the point that they are virtually extinct. Book reports are often assigned in the form of a book jacket or poster instead of a written analysis. Essays now are “student-centered” — even history assignments often call upon students to describe how they feel about past events rather than apply factual analysis.

Math classes are now more about math appreciation and being able to explain how a procedure works rather than the mastery of skills and procedures necessary to solve problems.

Gifted programs can relegate late bloomers to the non-honors track as early as third grade, he writes. By contrast, ability grouping can be flexible, letting students move up quickly when they’re ready.

A recent analysis of Dallas students found sorting by previous performance “significantly improves students’ math and reading scores” and helps “both high and low performing students,” including gifted and talented students, special education students, and those with limited English proficiency.

Schools are reviving ability grouping and tracking, according to Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.

He suggests a few possible reasons for the reversal: The emphasis on accountability, started by No Child Left Behind, may have motivated teachers to group struggling students together. The rise of computer-aided learning might make it easier for them to instruct students who learn at different rates.

Differentiating instruction for students of widely varying abilities — not to mention motivation and English fluency — is exceptionally challenging.  The “2008 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher reports that many teachers simply find mixed-ability classes difficult to teach,” notes Garelick.

Brookings: Ability grouping is back

Elementary teachers are using ability grouping once again, according to the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education by Tom Loveless.

Ability grouping was very popular from the 1960’s through the 1980s, but came under attack as inequitable in the 1990’s. In 1961, 80 percent divided children into robins, bluebirds and sparrows, or the like. (I was a bluebird in 1958.) By 1998, only 28 percent of fourth graders were being placed in reading groups by ability. That shot up to 71 percent by 2009, Brookings finds.

Math ability grouping rose from 40 percent of fourth graders in 1996 and 42 percent in 2003 to 61 percent in 2011.

With more computers in elementary classrooms, teachers may be “more comfortable with students in the same classroom studying different materials and progressing at different rates through curriculum,” writes Loveless.

Although ability grouping is coming back, efforts to de-track middle school math are continuing. However, pushing more eighth graders into algebra isn’t raising achievement, the report finds.

States with rising percentages of eighth graders taking Algebra I, Geometry, and other advanced math classes were no more likely to raise their NAEP scores from 2005-2011 than states with declining percentages of eighth graders in those courses.

When more students take pre-algebra and algebra, the courses appear to be watered down, writes Loveless. However, there’s no watering-down effect for geometry.

The U.S. is often exhorted to emulate the high-scoring  “A+ countries” — Belgium (Flemish), Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore — in math instruction. However, “the average A+ country made no more progress in math achievement than any other country in TIMSS” since 1995, the report finds.

And the Finns may do well on PISA but they’re nothing special on TIMSS.