Hats off to San Francisco Math Change

Jamie-girl-hands-up-smaller2Hats Off to San Francisco for showing the courage to change the teaching of math.

For the last couple of decades, the American public (and much of the rest of the world, as well) has been led to believe that the key to a better educational system – and therefore the key to success in the global market place – is to push our students to “get ahead” early.

Usually this approached is accompanied with the belief that lots of homework (why not start in kindergarten?) will help to develop their skill level.

To many, including me, it has been obvious for a while that this approach is failing.  Studies are coming out that show – much to the horror of those invested in the race-to-get-ahead – that we need to go in the other direction.

In spite of their long list of AP courses, our most accelerated students’ basic skills are weak, their anxiety levels are high, their interest in learning is low, and they can’t think for themselves.

Here are two places that demonstrate that the pendulum is swinging back.
 
Turning the Tide.  A gathering of admissions officers and others from highly selective college, sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, released a report at the start of this year, titled “Turning the Tide“.

The report urges us (teachers, college admissions, and parents) to rethink the college admissions process and the purpose of high school education.  It starts by stating firmly that we need to “reduce excessive achievement pressure.”  And then it asks us to question the pervasive idea that the the secret to getting into a selective college is to accumulate as many AP courses as possible – “Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas.”  I certainly hope the tide is turning.  Education is not a race.

The San Francisco Reversal.  A direct consequence of the race-to-get-ahead is the supposed requirement – for any serious student – to take AP Calculus by 12th grade at the latest.  (Of course, many would even consider 12th grade as far too late.)  It then stands to reason that all the prerequisite courses would need to be taught earlier as well.

The dominoes fall down the line into middle school, where any student that wants a chance at future academic success seemingly needs to complete at least one year of (what would normally be) high school math by the end of 8th grade.

In short, if you don’t finish Algebra I by the end of 8th grade then you are badly behind, and your college admissions prospects are at risk.  There has been a minority voice out there (me for one) that has been protesting this push for Algebra I in 8th grade.  I have two concerns:

(1) The students aren’t developmentally ready for a full year of algebra.  (Although, yes, they should certainly have a solid introduction to algebra in 7th grade, and a bit more in 8th grade.)  Often, quite understandably the teacher can’t make it through the entire Algebra I curriculum, and the students enter high school with weak basic algebra skills.

(2)  A lot of great math (I could give you a list) gets tossed out the window in the name of getting ahead and dedicating the whole year of 8th grade math to the study of algebra.

Therefore I was encouraged to read an article that stated San Francisco (a rather driven community, right?) had just reversed it’s previous policy of having all students take Algebra I in 8th grade to a new policy of no students taking Algebra I in 8th grade.

Would you expect to get blow back for such a decision?  Of course!  Think of all of the people – teachers, parents, students – whose identity is wrapped up in the race-to-get-ahead.  If your whole goal was to take as many AP courses in high school as possible, and now you are told that you can’t even take Algebra I in 8th grade – wouldn’t you be upset?

So why would they do it?  What would inspire such a complete reversal?  Here’s the surprise answer: The Common Core!  The Common Core “recommends” that “districts focus on pre-algebra throughout middle school.”

There is a good deal of wisdom behind the Common Core – and quite a few problems, too.

But at least it’s a step in the right direction.  The Common Core is urging understanding over procedures (nice!), and (in some ways) depth over acceleration.  Yes, if you read the article, it’s not accurate to say that Algebra I is now being delayed until high school in the San Francisco school system, because they are implementing a slightly different algebra sequence, but it’s nice to know they are questioning the dogmatic status quo.

My hats off to San Francisco for their courage!

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