Montgomery back to basics in math classes

By Michael Birnbaum
Friday, November 5, 2010

Montgomery County long has pushed its students to take ever-more-challenging math at ever-younger ages. Now educators will back off in the hope that more time and depth with the basics will yield payoffs in high school and beyond, school officials said Thursday.

Elementary and middle school students will no longer skip grade levels in math in large numbers. Instead, they will spend extra time on fundamental mathematical concepts that will better prepare them for Algebra I in the eighth grade and advanced math topics in high school. The school system aims to increase the number of high school students taking courses such as calculus and statistics.

The new direction comes as part of a sweeping set of recommended changes in the math curriculum released Thursday. Some of the recommendations cost money and require school board approval. Others, including the change in math acceleration, do not, and will be implemented quickly, officials said.

"Some students were placed in classes, and perhaps they weren't as prepared as they should have been," said Frieda Lacey, deputy superintendent of Montgomery schools, who sat on the work group that wrote the report. She said it was better to tackle topics in greater depth.

She called Montgomery's previous push for greater math acceleration an "overcorrection." But she also said the school system would not abandon accelerating students altogether.

The change comes as high school teachers were increasingly saying that even their advanced students were arriving in class unprepared. Parents wondered why their children needed to take advanced classes that often required outside tutoring. School officials said more than half of fifth-graders are taking sixth-grade math or higher.

Lacey said the change in policy would also help ensure that minority students, students with special needs and students learning English as a second language have equal access to rigorous math courses.

The school system convened a group of parents, educators and researchers to reevaluate the math curriculum a year and a half ago. The work group made 26 recommendations, some of which, such as hiring extra math coaches to help teachers design lessons, will be difficult to implement in strained budget times.

The report said that efforts to increase access to high-level classes "effectively removed sorting and selecting practices based on assumptions about ability," meaning that too many students were being accelerated routinely.

Many of the recommendations were about how best to comply with the new common core standards for math and reading that have been adopted by states across the country, including Maryland. Those standards attempt to simplify math education and add greater rigor and depth to classes. They set the expectation that students take Algebra 1 before high school, but they also shift when various concepts are taught.

Probability is taught most years from the second grade until algebra begins, for example. Under the common core, it will be taught in a concentrated dose in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Maryland is beginning to revise its standardized tests to reflect the new standards, which it adopted this spring. Montgomery is overhauling its elementary school curriculum to better tie together reading, math, science and other subjects.

An advocate for gifted and talented education in the county reacted to the work group's recommendations with caution.

"I would be really concerned that all kids in fourth-grade math would basically learn at the same level," said Fred Stichnoth, a member of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County. He said he thought it was difficult for teachers to address different ability levels in the same classroom. Still, he said, "a lot of kids have been accelerated too quickly."

The Montgomery County school board will hear a presentation of the recommendations and discuss them at their meeting on Tuesday.

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