Thursday, September 13, 2007

Lowest Common Denominator


Summer was nice. I wrote about lots of stuff that interested me, about my travels and about my city exploration. Now I am back to my whining and even I am getting tired of listening to me.

This term I am teaching the first term of Math B, for the first time. The kids all passed the Math A regents so, theoretically, they should be proficient in algebra skills and understand the basics of geometry. Unfortunately, what they should know is not necessarily what they do know.

I began the term discussing three concepts--median, altitude and angle bisector of a triangle. I spent TWO DAYS on these three little concepts, drawing pictures, using colored chalk and stressing each word in the problem. Some of the kids just couldn't get it. And then there were the related algebra problems. I have kids that don't know how to solve a basic equation.

Luckily, not all of them are this limited. But, because I hate to leave any kid out, I find myself spending too much time going over the basics, the things they should know from last year but don't. And, I don't think it is because they have forgotten, they just never knew them.

I would love to blame last year's math teachers for this deficit. If I did, I would be one of the worst culprits when it comes to pushing kids ahead. I taught two regents classes last year. I passed the kids that passed the regents, even when I knew their knowledge was very limited. When kids have to repeat a class after the regents is passed, they don't take it seriously. We know how stupid and easy the regents is. They don't. Repeating the course would have made no sense. The math A curriculum is awful. It doesn't teach real math skills. Almost any student can be taught to pass the regents if they know how to use a calculator. A scientific one will do just as well as a graphing one. The kids I passed that didn't know much need to pass to get that diploma. The diploma might only open a door to a job sweeping floors at UPS, but it opens the door just the same. When I went to school there were different types of diplomas. Kids that were not academically motivated or gifted, could still get a diploma. That is not true today. Everyone is college material.

So, where does that leave us? NCLB is leaving all our kids behind. The brightest kids are being deprived of a challenging education because I (and others) are too busy trying to reach everyone. The kids at the bottom might now be able to pass, but they are not learning anything, at least nothing useful.

If the politicians really care that no child is left behind, the curriculum must be changed so everyone can benefit from a high school diploma.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have been teaching high school language arts for 30 years in Georgia. In spite of the subjects and the geographical differences, we have a great deal in common. I have a good record of students passing the Georgia graduation tests in writing and reading/language arts, but you know what? Teaching them to pass the test is not very fulfilling. (Thanks for your blog. I read it the first time because of the title!) sdtaylor@windstream.net

mathmom said...

Sounds like your school needs to create an intermediate course between Math A and Math B for those who passed the regents, but still didn't learn any algebra. So, anyone who got, say, 80% (pick a number you like) in Math A moves on to Math B. Anyone else who passed the Math A regents moves into Math AB where they have a year to shore up all the algebraic topics they never really got the first time, and foreshadow some geometric topics to give them a chance of success in Math B the next year. That way, you don't "leave behind" the Math B students who are dying of boredom because they actually got algebra when they took it in Math A.

mathmom said...

p.s. you have a typo in your title (feel free to delete this comment)

beth said...

Amen!!

jonathan said...

Math A and B painted us into a corner. The breadth of math required to pass A was great, but did not imply readiness for the next course. What to do?

Too few schools in NYC fixed on the only scheme that made sense - two very different flavors of B - 1 leading to the regents in short order (2, 3, or 4 terms) and a second leading there, well, maybe, eventually, and maybe not.

If your school had that second track, well maybe then I would be with you. But if not? I will not pass a child into a class where they have no hope of success.

Now, that was easy for me to write, since I don't know the kids. In real life (like if we were talking about my own classes) the decisions are much harder.

Ultimately, the State screwed up and the City made it worse. And the awful choices? They get forced on us.

Pissed Off said...

Thanks for the comment about the typo--I fixed it!

Principal Suit wants everyone to take Math B. We were cited in the audit for not having enough kids go on to it. And, in my school, we only have one track for it.

As for an easier class, seniors take an intermediate algebra class because they don't have the three terms required to finish math B. We tried to get all weaker kids into intermediate algebra instead of math B, but it didn't look good for his stats. The only thing the school cares about is how it looks and how much of a performance bonuses the admins will get.

Catherine Johnson said...

Now I am back to my whining and even I am getting tired of listening to me.

Oh my god

This is EXACTLY what I say about myself.

Often.

jonathan said...

It's only got a couple more years, but if there were a 6-term Math B... I don't know if that would work for the P's stats, but each kid would be working towards the regents (as opposed to Int Alg) even if most never got there.

Your Math A local diploma kids and 65-75 kids must get slaughtered in regular Math B. It just seems cruel.

(I write "your" but your school is not doing anything that almost every high school in NYC is also doing)

And yeah, the "stats," created so that those who can't tell good education if it hit them in the face can read a chart instead, those stats are making P's do weird stuff.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm interested in your thoughts about creating "tiered" passing grades on exams such as Regents.

Diane Ravitch has said this is the solution to having tests everyone has to pass.

(In other words, you could pass with an "A," a "B," and I guess a "C" -- perhaps 3 levels?)

Apparently this has worked well historically in other countries.

It makes sense to me as a way around the political reality that you can't set the cut scores too high on high-stakes exams, because politically speaking you can't refuse to give diplomas to large numbers of students.

Fordham had a nice explanation of the two choices facing states when they attempt to create exams everyone must pass.

You can either dumb down the test or you can keep the test fairly rigorous and lower the cut scores.

Fordham says New York took the latter route, although you seem to disagree.

Would the Math A test be more meaningful, in your view, if the cut score were higher?

For the record, I took the Math A a year ago, after finishing Saxon Algebra 1.

I thought it was an OK test....by which I mean that I felt a fair amount of what I'd learned was present on the test. (Though I'd have to go back and look closely to make sure I really mean to say this.)

My score was something like a 97% correct (or the equivalent).

I also took a sample SAT math test around then and scored in a range of 580 - 620.

I missed every question on functions, and I think I got most of the algebra 1 questions correct.

Catherine Johnson said...

Principal Suit wants everyone to take Math B. We were cited in the audit for not having enough kids go on to it. And, in my school, we only have one track for it.

As for an easier class, seniors take an intermediate algebra class because they don't have the three terms required to finish math B. We tried to get all weaker kids into intermediate algebra instead of math B, but it didn't look good for his stats. The only thing the school cares about is how it looks and how much of a performance bonuses the admins will get.


This is disgusting.

Catherine Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catherine Johnson said...

We appear to have switched over to the Math A/Geometry/Math B sequence -- are you still on the Math A/Math B sequence?

(Of course, I don't know what my district is actually doing, because parents and students don't need to be told these things. As my good friend P. says, "Everything is shrouded in mystery.")

Do you think the new 3-year sequence will help?

Pissed Off said...

We are giving the new intermediate Algebra, no one knows how that will be yet.

Our kids getting local diplomas don't take math B. The other weak kids don't have time for 6 terms of math B. The class I have is mostly juniors. If it was up to Suit, he would pass them all.

As for the tiered system, it might work except for one thing. Schools are now judged by how many kids get over certain grades. My AP re-reads exams and pushes 82 and 83 to 85 so we look better. I am willing to bet the same thing would happen if exam grading was tiered.

I think we need to go back to teaching things kids need and are interested in. If a kid wakes up and decides he wants college and higher math, he can always do it later on. I'm going to write a post soon about a former student who did just that successfully.

jonathan said...

But wouldn't a junior taking the first 4 terms of a 6 term Math B be a good thing? Anyway, that's just talk. I know it won't happen.

We've got it worst in math. We are considered the least friendly subject (most abstract), and we have by far the hardest regents (Math B).

I don't know that things are about to get good. Maybe the new sequence will be much better, maybe just a little better. It won't be worse.

But here's something else that's bothering me: Will the Algebra regents measure the kid's knowledge of algebra, or whether they are ready to graduate? NYSED can't answer this question.

Not good, huh?

Mamacita (Mamacita) said...

Are you channeling me? Because we seem to be an awful lot alike. . . .

Catherine Johnson said...

If a kid wakes up and decides he wants college and higher math, he can always do it later on. I'm going to write a post soon about a former student who did just that successfully.

My only reservation about this -- and this is a question, not an opinion -- concerns how possible it is for kids to wake up in college and decide they want to do higher math....

My friend Carolyn did exactly this; I would be the last person to say it's not possible.

My question has to do with the amount of time it takes to develop math knowledge. James Milgram, at Stanford, has said that the college students he worked with simply couldn't make up for lost time. I have to take that seriously (thinking of my own child, and of other people's children...)

I guess my question is this.

What math knowledge, K-12, do you see as essential for all or nearly all students to gain in those years?

(You've probably talked about this on your blog; I'll read old posts.)

In other words, at what point would you have student interest determine what students learn about math in K-12?

Would you want all or nearly all students to be proficient in arithmetic and leave it at that?

Would you ask that all or nearly all students reach proficiency in what I would call algebra 1 and draw the line there?

Fantastic blog - so helpful.

Catherine Johnson said...

As for the tiered system, it might work except for one thing. Schools are now judged by how many kids get over certain grades. My AP re-reads exams and pushes 82 and 83 to 85 so we look better. I am willing to bet the same thing would happen if exam grading was tiered.

oh yes, absolutely

(and let me say, again, that I find all of this appalling - it is simply infuriating to read these stories of teachers being bullied into assigning grades students haven't earned)

I guess the question I'm asking pertains to schools that aren't massaging the data, assuming there are any, of course

(Are there?)

Pissed Off said...

First, everyone should master arithmetic, no question about that. I would also expose everyone to fundamentals of algebra, pushing them at least through middle school, no matter how uninterested they are. Interest grows with different teachers and different approaches.

By the time a kid is 15 or 16, they know what they are not interested in, what they cannot master and I would tend to let them focus on courses they are interested in. If they have been unsuccessful after so many years of school, why prolong the agony. Success in life does not equal master of algebra.