Montgomery schools' decision to slow pace of math courses divides parents

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:17 PM

One recent night, Mackenzie Stassel was cramming for a quiz in her advanced math course in Montgomery County. Her review of the complicated topics followed hours of other homework. Eventually she started to nod off at the table.

It was 11:15 p.m. Mackenzie is a sixth-grader.

There will be fewer such nights in the future for many Montgomery students.

Last month, Maryland's largest school system announced that it would significantly curtail its practice of pushing large numbers of elementary and middle school students to skip grade levels in math. Parents had questioned the payoff of acceleration; teachers had said students in even the most advanced classes were missing some basics.

Interviews with parents show that the issue provokes intense debate.

Donielle Stassel said Mackenzie is doing fine in seventh-grade math at Herbert Hoover Middle School. Still, the mother has mixed feelings.

"They just shotgun them through so much of this," Donielle Stassel said. "I understand that things move faster today, but at some point it just gets over the top."

This year, more than half of Montgomery fifth-graders are taking what the county deems sixth-grade math or above. Within a few years, the 144,000-student system plans to reconfigure its elementary and middle school math curriculum to conform with new national standards that educators say will ensure that concepts are taught in greater depth.

In Montgomery and many other places, the goal remains for students to complete first-year algebra by the end of eighth grade. That is a year ahead of the traditional timing of the course in U.S. schools.

Montgomery officials plan for Algebra 1 to be standard in eighth grade in hopes that even more students will take advanced math in high school. But the path students take will be straighter and involve less acceleration than the current sequence.

"We know that it's an aggressive curriculum in Montgomery County, and we certainly want the best education that we can get for our child. What parent doesn't?" Stassel said. "But it's just - at what cost?"

Math education experts say schools too often zoom through as many topics as possible, instead of lingering in depth on the basics. Advocates of the new standards adopted by the District and by Maryland and most other states - but not Virginia - say they will streamline math topics and make education more consistent.

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