Accelerated Math Adds Up To a Division Over Merits

Grace Pereles, 11, and her classmates use coins to study theoretical and experimental probability during an accelerated math course at Potomac Elementary.
Grace Pereles, 11, and her classmates use coins to study theoretical and experimental probability during an accelerated math course at Potomac Elementary. (Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Next fall, 26 of the sharpest fifth-grade minds at Potomac Elementary School will study seventh-grade math. The rest of the fifth grade will learn sixth-grade math. Fifth-grade math will be left to the third- and fourth-graders.

Public schools nationwide are working to increase the number of students who study Algebra I, the traditional first-year high school math course, in eighth grade. Many Washington area schools have gone further, pushing large numbers of students two or three years ahead of the grade-level curriculum.

Math study in Montgomery County has evolved from one or two academic paths to many. Acceleration often begins in kindergarten. In a county known for demanding parents, the math push has generated an unexpected backlash. Many parents say children are pushed too far, too fast.

Sixty Montgomery math teachers complained, in a November forum, that students were being led into math classes beyond their abilities.

"I don't think any teacher has trouble with acceleration," said a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of displeasing his principal. "The problem is when the school district creates a quota for the school -- in other words, 'We want 80 percent of your eighth-graders in Algebra I, and 40 percent of your seventh-graders in Algebra I, and 20 percent of your sixth-graders in Algebra I.' "

Other area school systems also are pushing students far beyond grade-level math. The goal is to shorten the time it takes students to reach Algebra I and broaden access to a course considered a foundation for later success on the SAT, in Advanced Placement study and in college. In Fairfax County schools, 29 percent of elementary students are on an accelerated track that compresses six years of study into four, preparing them for algebra in seventh grade. A majority of Arlington County students enroll in algebra by eighth grade, and at least two-fifths of students complete algebra in middle school in most other Washington area systems.

Many applaud the trend. Parents in Montgomery and Fairfax have lobbied for more advanced courses, especially in math, a subject some children master years ahead of others. Advocates for gifted education point to the initiative as the best example of a separate course of study for advanced students at most schools. Many more low-income and minority students are engaged in advanced math than ever before.

"I think parents of what I call above-average to gifted kids . . . were all saying, 'Our kids are bored,' " said Louise Epstein, a Fairfax mother and president of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted.

The backlash appears more pronounced in Montgomery than in Fairfax. Some Montgomery parents support acceleration but question the frenetic pace. Schools are chasing a countywide goal that 80 percent of students complete Algebra I in middle school by 2010, well above the current 56 percent. Parents used to routinely petition principals for their children to be accelerated in math. Now, some are asking that their children be moved to less-challenging classes.

Officials predict that parents and teachers will grow more comfortable over time with the accelerated approach.

"This is the opportunity, at any level, for students to get as far above grade level as they are capable of," said Leah Quinn, Montgomery's math supervisor.

The notion that students can master high school algebra before high school is relatively new, said Francis "Skip" Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., who is past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The share of students completing the course in middle school nationwide has gone from next to nothing a generation ago to about 25 percent in the late 1990s to about 40 percent today.

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