Subtracting math acceleration adds to learning

Dec. 16, 2010, 2:40 p.m. | By Claire Koenig | 11 years, 8 months ago

Reducing the number of students in advanced math will fill gaps in education

I've got a problem for you. No need to take out scratch paper, it shouldn't be too hard. If 50 elementary school students are placed in an accelerated math class, and 10 of them learn none of the basic concepts they need to succeed in higher levels of math, how many of these students should not have been in the course in the first place?

Divide knowledge by the power of accelerated math, and you end up with a generation of students incapable of completing basic problems. Accelerated classes move too quickly while only skimming the surface of concepts that should be examined with great detail, allowing thousands of students to come out of MCPS with huge gaps in their math education.

In a recent meeting of the MCPS Mathematics Work Group, a collection of teachers, administrators, parents and students interested in improving math education compiled a list of 26 ways to better math classes in MCPS. One of these suggestions was to change the MCPS system of accelerated math, and although no firm solutions have been put into effect as of yet, Superintendent Jerry Weast will readdress the issues raised in the spring of 2011, when he hopes to introduce a plan to reduce the number of students placed in math acceleration in elementary schools for the 2012 school year.

MCPS' gifted and talented (GT) program spans from kindergarten into eighth grade and then feeds into honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school. It was originally established in MCPS schools in 1978 to give children with high potential a chance to learn more challenging material at a younger age. One of the primary principles of the GT track is that exceptionally talented students learn at a different tempo, and that GT classes help them to reach their full potential. But GT has expanded since then to accept students who are unprepared for the level of difficulty in advanced classes.

Right now, about 50 percent of MCPS's fifth-grade students are taking a math class traditionally designed for sixth or seventh graders, according to the MCPS website. If half of the student body really is above where they are expected to be in on-level math classes, then something is wrong with the county math curriculum. It is more likely that the problem lies not within the standards for advanced classes, but within the standards for gifted students.

MCPS standards for GT students are significantly lower than requirements for the GT programs in the rest of the state. MCPS students that may take GT classes must fulfill three of five total requirements, but only two of these requirements are based on academic prowess. The remaining three are qualitative surveys performed by teachers and parents, meaning that students could be in the GT program without having scored above average in any of their classes. In turn this means that more students are being pushed into accelerated math when they are not ready to take it, and what was once a program designed to dare capable kids to challenge themselves has become a means to drag ill-equipped students into torture by trigonometry.

This huge inflation of standards is especially problematic in math classes, where it is absolutely crucial that students understand previous lessons before they learn new concepts. It is possible for a student to take an advanced history course and learn about World War II before studying Medieval Europe. But if a student has not properly learned how to multiply fractions, they cannot be expected to solve abstract trigonometric functions or even complete many basic algebra problems.

In order for MCPS to accelerate students, early level math teachers must cram concepts into the curriculum at a hectic pace, so lessons that should be examined in-depth are taught fleetingly and concepts that need to be firmly rooted in the brain are left underdeveloped. High school teachers like Blair Magnet Program teacher Eric Walstein have been telling the county about this fault in acceleration for years, with no apparent result until now. Walstein said that because they learned the basics when they were too young, most kids coming into high school currently do not have the fundamental base necessary to learn higher levels of math - even his Magnet students. "The kids are being asked to do trivial math too early," he said. "It's not that they're not smart; it's that they're not ready."

The future mathematicians of Montgomery County aren't the only ones harmed by this trend, since acceleration also detracts from the education of students who are incorrectly placed in classes that are too advanced for them. According to the MCPS GT policy report, one of the reasons MCPS decided to expand its GT program was to give an engaging, challenging education to kids who normally wouldn't have the opportunity, with a focus on minority and economically underprivileged students. But no one gains when students are put into classes in which they cannot succeed.

That isn't to say that acceleration doesn't work for talented students, it's just not the way for everyone. Students should be allowed the time to learn concepts fully, especially at early levels where it is crucial that students understand the basics that will enable them to succeed exponentially in the future.

Claire Koenig. More »

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