Jay Mathews on an Accelerated Math Challenge, for Student and Parent

By Jay Mathews
Monday, April 13, 2009

Anne McCracken Ehlers's third-grade daughter was not doing well in accelerated fourth-grade math at Whetstone Elementary School in Gaithersburg. Becca was spending far too long on her assignments. She was confused. She was unhappy. Ehlers is a teacher herself, in the English department at Rockville High School. So she was polite when she asked for a change, but nothing happened.

Finally, the 8-year-old in the drama decided that enough was enough, prompting this e-mail from her teacher to Ehlers on the afternoon of Feb. 5: "I just wanted to let you know that math bunch was held today from 1:00-1:30. Rebecca chose not to come. I asked her several times to please join us and she refused saying that she would come next week. We went over rounding, estimating, and adding decimals. We also reviewed word problems that include fractions. Please encourage Rebecca to take part in these extra math sessions. Thank you very much for your support."

Amid the often bleak news about public education, elementary school math has been a bright spot. Test scores are up nationally. Montgomery County has been particularly successful, leading the state in this category. At Whetstone Elementary, where 48 percent of students come from low-income families, 82 percent of third-graders and 90 percent of fourth-graders last year passed the state math test.

But some parents in Montgomery and other high-performing Washington suburbs wonder if those big numbers are worth tears at bedtime. When I spoke at Silver Spring International Middle School a month ago, the only thing much of the audience wanted to talk about was a widespread parental belief that their blue-ribbon schools were not leading children to new intellectual heights, but pushing them over a cliff.

I have heard this before from high school parents. They like to blame schools for the stress of the college admissions process, but those of us who remember our own fearful moments with our own high school juniors and seniors know it is mostly our fault. We choose ambitious goals for ourselves. Our children mimic us. Ehlers's situation was different. I couldn't blame her for Becca's struggles with accelerated math.

Ehlers said she had been asking since September for her child to please be returned to third-grade math. But the school did not follow through. It seemed to Ehlers that they felt "asking to have her moved to a more appropriate math class would be giving up on her, telling her that she is a failure, that she doesn't measure up."

I thought the educators involved would punt when I asked about the Ehlers case. They employed the usual diplomatic terms for dealing with parents. They declared their allegiance to each child's "unique needs" and their support for "parent feedback." But to my surprise, they mostly stood their ground on acceleration for all. "We believe that every child will be able to achieve at high levels, not just in math but in all academic areas," Whetstone Principal Victoria Casey said. Erick Lang, Montgomery's associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, emphasized the importance of completing first-year algebra before ninth grade: "Getting students to accomplish that goal requires keeping them on the right path of courses."

That showed spunk and commitment to long-term goals, both of which I like. I still recall with astonishment the seventh-grade teacher at a highly respected private middle school who could not tell me whether her math class, and those that followed, would have my daughter ready for calculus in 12th grade. All that teacher wanted, she said, was for my daughter to be "comfortable," a word I hear too often in too many bad schools.

John Hoven, a veteran Montgomery parent activist for accelerated education, thinks that what Ehlers encountered was a bureaucratic preference for one-size-fits-all education. "The school district doesn't want to provide appropriate instruction to either fast learners or slow learners," he said.

I wouldn't go that far, at least not until I see data supporting the Silver Spring parents' accusations of unrealistic standards that have allegedly led to slapdash teaching and poor preparation for the next grade. I am looking for numbers to back that up. At the moment, I can blame the Whetstone educators only for responding so slowly to Ehlers's complaint. It should not have required a child's act of civil disobedience to persuade them to honor a parent's request that a student be allowed back into her own grade level.

"This is not laziness or coddling -- this is certainly not a failure on anybody's part," Ehlers said. "This is doing what's best for the kid in front of you at the time." Exactly right. But having seen how hard it is in less-favored school systems to remedy the mistake of asking too little of a child, I prefer a system like Montgomery's that errs on the side of asking too much, because that is a mistake more easily corrected.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com

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