Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of McDaniel College education expert Skip Fennell. This version has been updated.
Alison Friedman’s third-grade son spends his free time in math class in Gaithersburg playing with his pencil, waiting for his classmates to finish multiplication, addition and subtraction problems he mastered in earlier grades.
Worried that her child is wasting time, Friedman is thinking about giving him additional math work at home. She can’t afford a tutor, but getting him some enrichment could keep him on track for Algebra I by sixth grade — three years ahead of the national standard and two years ahead of Montgomery County’s standard.
“I feel like I’ve hit a dead end,” said Friedman, whose two older sons skipped grades in math.
Friedman is one of hundreds of Montgomery parents concerned and upset that new education standards and curriculum will reduce the number of students who skip grades to accelerate in math. They have created a Facebook page called “MCPS Parents Support Math Acceleration.” And more than 1,000 have signed a petition called “No Time to Waste,” urging the Board of Education to reform what some have called “one size fits all” math programming.
“The pot is simmering on the stove and getting ready to boil over,” said Pat O’Neill, who, like other Board of Education members, has been hearing from parents worried that the new curriculum shortchanges gifted students.
The county’s recent rollout of Curriculum 2.0, aimed at meeting nationwide Common Core Standards, provides more rigorous math instruction, district officials have told parents. Fewer students will be accelerated in math because students are expected to do work that draws on material that used to be taught at higher grade levels. So what was once considered “accelerated” is now on grade level.
But parents have been pressing school system officials for details on how it will accelerate students who might be ready for algebra sooner than eighth grade.
Concerns about math aren’t new in Montgomery — where high-achieving schools come with competition and lofty expectations — but the latest debate comes as Montgomery aims to correct a system that over-accelerated students. The county is also in the middle of adopting the Common Core State Standards, designed to create more consistent educational instruction nationwide while giving students a more solid foundation in math.
In previous years, Montgomery schools had pushed for 80 percent of its students to take algebra by eighth grade, one year ahead of the national standard to prepare students for college. In 2001, about 43 percent of the county’s students finished Algebra by eighth grade, a rate that increased to about 68 percent in 2010, according to the county.
But many students were accelerated before they were ready, said Erick Lang, an assistant superintendent. The pressure had families hiring private tutors for students who were falling behind and high school math instructors wasting time reteaching basic material.
Under Curriculum 2.0, the goal is to develop a “deeper understanding” of math in elementary school to better prepare students for Algebra I by eighth grade, Lang said.
“We’re asking students to think about what’s behind the math,” Lang added.
That’s what Andrea Segovia was trying to do with her third-grade students one recent afternoon. The Ashburton Elementary School teacher was instructing the class about multiplying by factors of five. But she didn’t allow students like Diego Santiago to simply write down multiplication tables committed to memory. Diego had to solve a word problem about a child who read 10 minutes a day, five days a week. He had to diagram his thinking and verbally explain his work.
He drew a string of 10 circles across the page, then began to draw four more rows. Segovia stopped him. She broke down the problem with Diego until he understood that the 10 circles represented minutes and that he needed five rows to represent the days.
Developers of the Common Core decided U.S. students performed poorly in math compared with international peers because the American curriculum focused too much on rote learning and not enough on conceptual reasoning. Academics and experts said math instruction in America was a “mile wide and an inch deep,” with students getting shallow understanding of several concepts.
Skip Fennell, a mathematics education expert at McDaniel College in Maryland, said changes driven by Common Core represent a huge shift that requires parents to change their mind set about kids flying though math workbooks or skipping grades.
“Parents are used to seeing kids whiz through stuff, but done right, kids shouldn’t whiz through it,” Fennell said. “If you can mechanically do addition and subtraction and don’t know how the procedure works and can’t tell me whether your answer is correct or not, then we’ve lost.”
This change is also what frustrates parents in Montgomery. Even if the new curriculum is more difficult and requires more analytical thinking, there will still be students who can work beyond the already heightened expectations. There isn’t a clear path for those students, for whom a gifted program or magnet school might not be the right option.
Under previous curriculum standards, students learned many concepts in one grade and then often repeated them the next. With the new curriculum, this repetition has mostly been eliminated. Students spend much more time on fewer concepts in a single grade with just one opportunity to learn it, making it harder to skip ahead.
Instead of going down the hall to a more advanced math class, for the most part, students of all abilities now work in a single classroom in small groups.
In Segovia’s class, small groups rotated through workstations, doing a different activity every 10 minutes. all related to multiplying by five. They independently filled out math worksheets, sat at a computer or played a dice game.They also took turns sitting with Segovia, who created three different math lessons for the day. She designed each lesson to cater to different groups of students, based on their ability.
This 10-minute window with the teacher is when students can have their individual needs met, district officials say.
Friedman said she likes the new curriculum but worries that combining students of all abilities will stifle students going faster at math.
“The teacher is never going to pay attention to the kids who need more enrichment,” Friedman said. “They’re going to pay attention to the kids who can’t get [the material].”
Lang, the assistant superintendent, said the county is continuing to develop “enrichment” material for students who move faster than others. And for the students who can go even faster, the county intends to introduce a plan this winter that will show how students can take geometry — the next course after algebra — by eighth grade.Lang said he doesn’t know how many fewer students will fall into that category compared with the school system’s old curriculum.
“We have to make sure kids are getting their individual needs meet,” Lang said. “We’ve been trying to figure it out, and it’s on us.”