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Class Notes
Staying true to a teacher's mission
(Published January 24, 2005)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

Wouldn't it be great if kids who had problems in math had more time in which to learn it? Students who really struggle could take an additional math class, as an elective, and learn the material of one math class at their own pace over two years.

This was one idea put forward at the last "superintendent's standards" roundtable. I think it's a bad one. Allowing kids to choose between a one-year Algebra II course or a two-year Algebra II course would be a betrayal of our responsibility as educators.

Since "standards reform" made headlines last September, D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Clifford Janey has held three roundtable discussions to develop a new set of content standards for students. The purpose of the new standards is to define a core of knowledge and skills that is appropriately rigorous, appropriately sequenced and properly supported by the school system so that teachers in every classroom will be teaching a consistent, college preparatory set of courses.

The idea behind this reform is sound, and I've said as much in previous columns. I'm grateful to be invited to participate in the work on math standards, along with a panel of my fellow math teachers from across the city. At all three occasions the roundtable has met, I've been impressed by the quality and dedication of the people involved. Despite troubles in the system, there are many leaders of great skill, compassion and insight within our schools and that they volunteer to put up with abrasive teachers like me in order to create new guideposts for our kids' educational journey is testament to their commitment.

In addition to negotiating the content to be taught in each class, there have been some discussions about "who should take what when." Citywide, there is a push to get more kids into algebra in middle school. Prominent educators like Robert Moses agree that algebra is a gateway subject for kids success in algebra is one of the key determinants of whether you apply to college, graduate on time or even graduate from high school at all. There is a strong correlation between future earnings and the number of math courses taken in high school kids who pass more and higher-level math classes are much more likely to go to college. People with some college made $7,000 more per year and four-year college graduates made $16,000 more per year than high school graduates (on average data is from a 1999 Census Bureau Report www.census.gov).

An important innovation in D.C. is to teach Algebra I as a two-year course across 7th and 8th grades, so that kids have a long period of time in which to delve into algebra, and, be accelerated along the high school math course list so that they can start geometry in 9th grade, like students in many affluent districts, and reach advanced courses like AP (advanced placement) Calculus within four years.So if two-year Algebra I is good, why not two-year Algebra II? First of all, algebra in 7th grade is an acceleration, not a lowering of expectations. Traditionally in D.C., students don't take Algebra I until 9th grade. Pushing a two-year Algebra I curriculum down to middle school makes math more rigorous.

Still, why is offering kids a choice to take Algebra II in one year or stretch Algebra II over two years a bad idea? The arguments for offering a two-year Algebra II course are that it will increase math motivation by giving students an opportunity to experience more success via a slower-paced course; that people learn at different rates, and some students aren't ready for a difficult Algebra II course after geometry; and that not everyone wants to go into a math course higher than Algebra II. I believe that putting some kids into a "slow" Algebra II course will lower motivation, as we will expect less of them and they will expect less of themselves.

People do learn at different rates, but they will be confronted with college and the world of work at the same rate as everyone else. Students who are not ready for Algebra II have the option right now to take a different course (for example, Probability & Statistics), and, assuming we taught it correctly, if they passed geometry they should be ready. Students who don't want to take a course after Algebra II don't have to right now, but, frankly, they should be encouraged to take another course anyway.

The main reason why expecting less of our kids, and allowing them to stretch Algebra II across two years would perpetuate a class structure of oppression, is that math courses are money. Numerous studies have shown that more math courses equals more wealth and less poverty. The Public Policy Institute of California found in July 2001 (http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/RB_701JBRB.pdf) that "one extra course in algebra or geometry is associated with 6.3 percent higher earnings" and "it is not simply the number of math courses a student takes that is important; what matters more is the extent to which students take more demanding courses."

In addition to the money, there are several other strong reasons to keep Algebra II as a one-year course. Students applying to college with a highest-level math course of Algebra II on their transcripts are at a disadvantage, especially when students in more affluent districts like Fairfax County begin high school in geometry and finish Algebra II in 10th grade. Also, how will we decide who should go into which class? Students are kids they often don't know which course is best for them to take and will rely on us to recommend they enter the "fast" Algebra II or the "slow" Algebra II. This will return us to tracking or streaming of students and allow kids of whom we expect less to confirm their perceived inability.

Research studies have repeatedly shown that when we raise our standards, our kids do more. This is why Superintendent Janey has begun his reforms with standards. Research also shows that high-achieving kids are not harmed by sharing a class with lower-achieving kids, yet lower-achieving kids learn less if they are segregated into their own, lower-level class. I have had several bright "D" students in geometry class who need to be challenged and can rise to the occasion if pushed or lose interest in school completely if tracked into a boring class.

Ask yourself which you would rather have: a school system where kids struggle and complete only 70 percent of a lot, or where kids have an easier time and complete 90 percent of a little. Here's some perspective: 70 percent of a college graduate's annual earnings of $42,000 is $29,400; 90 percent of a high school graduate's annual earnings of $26,000? $23,400. I would feel pretty happy about writing every 11th grader a $6,000 check each year for life.

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Wennersten is a third year mathematics teacher at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator