Sunday, October 12, 2008

Op-Ed on Math Wars in Sunday Times

This is a good op-ed from Ted Nutting, a math teacher at Ballard high school who teaches, among other courses, AP Calculus. He is clearly on the side of old-school math and makes no apologies for it. From the piece:

"The problem is national in scope, but in Washington state our difficulties can be traced principally to Terry Bergeson, superintendent of public instruction for the past 12 years. She oversaw the writing of our state's weak, vague math standards, basing them on a "reform" idea to promote "discovery" learning. This has turned teachers into "facilitators" who "guide" children in learning activities. It has promoted "differentiated instruction," placing students of wildly differing abilities together where some students cannot do the required work, often to the detriment of those who can.

She has moved away from rigorous testing. The "reform" math she champions encourages such things as journals, portfolios and group projects that tend to form large parts of classroom grading systems, while test results are relegated to a lesser role. The math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), aligned to her faulty standards, tests math skills at a low level. Even so, about half our 10th-graders fail it."

He talks about his own experience:

"My experience tells me that we can fix this, and quickly. I am the Advanced Placement calculus teacher at Ballard High School. I don't teach Bergeson-style. I tell my students what they need to know, they do problems to understand how it works, and they demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through testing. Up until this year, we've insisted that our students who take AP calculus actually be able to do the work.

We at Ballard have by far the best AP calculus program in Seattle Public Schools, based on AP test scores. I have no special magnetism or charisma; I'm not a cult figure for teenagers. I have high standards and I require the students to work. If they don't work, they know they will probably flunk. But they do work, and I am proud of them. I also have the benefit of having an older textbook that doesn't fit the "reform math" model, and most of my students have had an excellent pre-calculus teacher the year before."

But he admits most of the other math classes follow the "reform" model and

"Since we find that many students in our classes cannot do the work, we dumb down the courses."

He goes on to say,

"Unfortunately, things are changing, even in our school's AP calculus classes: We're starting to admit unqualified students, and our program will soon begin to deteriorate."

I don't know if this is an opening shot against the Roosevelt model (via the district's wishes) of putting all students in an AP class.

He does point out the North Beach abandoned the reform model and stuck to Saxon math with great results.

"North Beach did this with reluctant agreement from Seattle Public Schools because the PTA paid for the books and because the superintendent supported site-based decision-making. North Beach's passing rate on the WASL rose from 68 percent in 2000 to 94 percent in 2004 — and yet, every year parents worry that real math will be scrapped. Recently, the school has had to seek waivers to avoid having to teach the district's "reform" math."

He does on to talk about what is happening with state math adoption:

"The Legislature had required that the new mathematics standards be based on (among other things) the standards of Singapore, consistently a leader on international tests, but Bergeson's initial submission of texts ranked Singapore Math, that country's official curriculum (and a superior one), dead last out of 12.

Most school-district administrations have gone along with Bergeson and share responsibility for this mess. Even as an uproar arose nationally against the programs Bergeson promotes, Seattle started using two of them in elementary and middle schools."

It may be too little too late but I'm sure glad he spoke up.


taylor said...

It's interesting that the public finally got the real message on the AP Human Geography class being a district wish and not Roosevelt's social studies department, as people were told by the school.

What's even more interesting is now that grading standards are changing and no N's will be allowed, how will Roosevelt (and the district) assure that all non-traditional students taking AP Human Geography will have those appropriate supports "during the school day" to prevent student failure? (That's the newest unanswered question to the AP Human Geo saga.) There were several examples presented of Human Geo being done successfully at high schools across the country... but these schools had many, many supports integrated during the school-day for non-traditional students.

In ALL the discussions at school board meeting, by Roosevelt Social Studies team or in any School Board blogs was there EVER a mention of how this "AP experiment" would be measured? The school (and district) never mentioned how AP Human Geo success was to be determined and what accountability would be in place to protect 10th grade students. Only heard after-the-fact that Roosevelt's student graduation requirements (without school board presentation, public input and vote) were changed for this one school.

We didn't see any information in the school's presentation to the school board or the district's offer to provide appropriate school-based supports. Only after-school tutoring which makes it a punishment for failing students who may not have had the appropriate preparation and skill sets to succeed in the first place. (This tutoring has no guarantees!)

In fact at this board meeting, the school said that student failures in AP Human Geo would receive an "N" and would not negatively impact these students GPA's and transcripts. O-O-O-P-P-P-S

Now that N's are out-of-style grades, it will be real hard to put this genie back into the bottle won't it!

It's a real shame that the non-traditional student GPA's and future college admissions may bear the burden were district "will" to do inclusive AP, half-assed on the cheap (and the easiest way), outweigh real student needs and notions of success.

There have been NO safety nets in place to protect the non-traditional students forced into taking this AP class whether they were ready or not, without integrated student supports ...not at the school level, not at the district level and not by the school Board who according to Director Harium Morris voted last Spring to change (amend) Roosevelt's graduation requirements (without transparency and public process).

It's even safer to say that the Seattle School Board will now be on the hook for these students' futures and that the new Superintendent is not guiding this ship of reform and change!!!

Melissa Westbrook said...

What's a "non-traditional" student?

taylor said...

Non-traditional student are students the district has "identified" as not traditionally taking AP courses. (I believe you used this term in a prior blog?) These include students who may or may not have the prior skills development and preparation for the higher rigor of content, quicker pacing and coursework involved in an AP class but who could GREATLY benefit from inclusion in AP... with of course the right integrated supports!

Non-traditional AP students are students who usually not represented or are "under-represented", in AP classes and may not choose to take an AP class. (They are also the same students under-represented in all of the district's Highly Capable programs.) They may include English-language learners, may be students with disabilities who have Individual Education Plans and 504 plans, may be first generation in family to go to college, may be students of color, may be from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and poverty.

Right now its a real big nationwide trend to get non-traditional students in AP classes because there is a direct correlation between AP inclusion, increased state assessment scores (a` la WASL) and closing achievement gaps. But other districts take the time and $$$ to provide the students with supports so at least students don't fail at their first AP attempt!

Dorothy Neville said...

I still think that AP HG was internal to RHS SS department. I think it is actually part of ugly departmental politics.

To address one of Taylor's many very good points, metrics for success.

Last spring the SS department put an FAQ up on the website that explained a few things in a bit more detail. (Kinda late, but better late than never.) This isn't on the site anymore, I have a copy and can share it. While it explains a few things better than before, it's got some pretty silly things on it.

Specifically, something that made no sense to me was this answer. The reason it makes no sense is that it says what sorts of things will be measured, but doesn't address benchmarks or anything meaningful about the metrics and outcomes.

13. What methods will be used to evaluate the AP Human Geography class from year to year and will parent/student feedback be solicited?
The metrics used to evaluate AP Human Geography include:
• Student grades
• Number of students taking the AP exam
• Number of students scoring a 3 or better on the AP exam
• Number of students enrolling in advanced level courses in 11th and 12th grade.
• Grade data from students in advanced social studies classes in grades 11 and 12.
• Course evaluations

I sent an email to Brian Vance and Karen Grace last June asking for more specifics. From that email:

2. The metrics for evaluating success: A previous document (or the presentation?) said there would be monitoring this for success and the program would change if it didn't adequately fulfill its goals. I assume this FAQ question (#13) is in response to that. But just saying what metrics will be used doesn't say enough. What are the goals in terms of these outcomes? Ie, do you have data on grades, AP scores etc on the current system? What target numbers are you aiming for? After one year? After multiple years?

2b. Course evaluations are listed as one of the metrics for success. Do you mean evaluations by students? Are student evaluations part of RHS overall or within the SS department? If so, how is the data collected and used? If not, what process for collecting and analyzing course evaluations will you use? How will this be part of the SS department evaluation of the success of the new program?

I got a quick, sorry, we are busy at the end of the year, will get to you eventually, sort of reply. I have not resent the email this Autumn. I did however, see Brian Vance at a PTSA meeting and he reminded himself that I was expecting a reply. At that meeting he said that they were going to look for increases in self selected AP courses in 11th and 12th grade and increases in WASL scores.

What! As a measure of success? Wasl scores? For a college level class? When many 9th graders take and pass the WASL before they've stepped into a HG class. How possibly can WASL scores be used as a measure of success for this course?

BTW, my son doesn't think very highly of the class so far. It is clearly not a college level course and not at anywhere near a college level pace. Regularly during class time they are given opportunities to work on homework activities. In college, instructional time means Instruction! One is expected to do homework at other times, instructor time is valuable.

He recently had a test, a multiple choice scantron thing with questions from somewhere (the publisher?). But the teacher ended up not counting three of the questions. See, as a course designed for college freshmen, even though it is an easy course, it assumes some basic history knowledge. The three questions that were not counted relied on prior knowledge of European History. My son said he got them correct, and I haven't seen the actual test, but he said one of them was something along the lines of "What big thing happened a couple hundred years ago and greatly affected things?" and the answer was The Industrial Revolution.

A. Shouldn't we expect 10th graders to have at least a passing familiarity with the Industrial Revolution?
B. When are they going to teach history? What about the history EALRS? (reports from 9th grade parents who attended curriculum night indicate that Europe has not become part of the 9th grade World History class.)
C. Will they petition the College Board so that they won't put any questions on the AP test that assume prior knowledge of European History?

Sue said...

Wow. Am I happy that I have Ballard where AP apparently means AP. I am nervous however, that this district is trending towards eliminating/watering down AP (based on what they have allowed/directed to happen at Hale and Roosevelt) and that my younger kids will have to attend private high school to get an appropriately challenging education.

Am I justifiably nervous?

dan dempsey said...

Melissa said that she was glad that Ted spoke up. Ted spoke up before the adoption of May 30, 2007
and it did no good.

If you look on Harium's blog under Math k-5, you will find that the administration clearly had no interest in following the board's intentions.
As Charlie said:
Harium, you have a very serious situation on your hands here.

It has become apparent that the District Staff have deliberately refused to implement the curriculum adopted by the Board. The staff, from the Superintendent, the Chief Academic Officer, and the Math Director on down, have conspired to subvert the Board's explicit intent.

What are you going to do about it?


Well said Mr Mas.. consider this ..
It is clear that this did not just happen yesterday. This conspiracy has gone on for over a year.

The board did do something. They gave MG-J a $24,000 raise and a contract extension.

Should I be expecting them to do something more meaningful?

TechyMom said...

Harium has a poll on his site asking about whether we should use a traditional Algebra, Geometry, Calculus curriculum for high school math. It's on the right, under the box with his picture and list of schools. Also has some new threads on middle school and k-5 math.

Charlie Mas said...

Harium has been conspicuously absent on his own blog lately.