Fast Learners

Montgomery County officials say accelerating students in math will better prepare them for college, but a revered teacher says it's time to step on the brakes.

By Emily Messner
Sunday, August 3, 2008; Page W20

It's the day before final exams start at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, and Eric Walstein is teaching a class he calls "a travesty."

It's not that he minds teaching Algebra II, but these students are in Blair's acclaimed math and science magnet program, and traditionally the magnet hasn't bothered with the course -- the kids were smart enough, and their grounding in the fundamentals of algebra strong enough, that they could proceed directly from geometry in middle school to precalculus in high school and pick up the additional algebra they needed along the way. But the precalculus teachers found so many freshmen struggling that the magnet created an Algebra II section on the fly in the middle of this past school year. And so here sits Walstein, 63, in a faded green polo shirt, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, as he reviews algebra with students who were in precalculus just a few months earlier. It's not that these kids aren't as smart as those who came before them. So, what's going on?

When asked why she was taking the Algebra II course, one student, Manisha Sarkar, said it was "because we were not given the proper background" in middle school math. Lisa Ma said that while she did very well on tests in Algebra I, she didn't feel she'd really learned the material.

This complaint is nothing new to Walstein and his students. At end-of-school-year parties hosted at Walstein's Brookeville home, the trajectory of math education in the county is a familiar topic of conversation. At his 2007 barbecue, a bunch of students from Walstein's advanced calculus, origins of math and complex analysis classes sat around an oblong table on his back deck. But they weren't talking about complicated mathematical theorems; they were talking about the fundamentals. They had younger siblings and friends at other schools, windows into middle school math classrooms throughout the county. Walstein shuffled over to a big wooden armchair at the head of the table. He was dismayed -- but not at all surprised -- by what he heard.

The students swapped stories of little sisters, brothers and cousins who were taking above-grade-level math and getting good grades, yet did not seem to have a firm grasp of the material. The curriculum is being "narrowed and shallowed," Walstein said. "The philosophy is that they squeeze you out the top like a tube of toothpaste. That's what Montgomery County math is."

Several students nodded their heads. This thesis has become Walstein's obsession: In its drive to be the best, please affluent parents and close the achievement gap on standardized tests, the county is accelerating too many students in math, at the expense of the curriculum -- and the students. The average accelerated math student "thinks he's fine. His parents think he's fine. The school system says he's fine. But he's not fine!" Walstein declares on one occasion. On another, Walstein is even less diplomatic. " 'We have the best courses and there's no achievement gap and everything is wonderful,' " he says, parroting the message he believes county administrators are trying to project.

"The problem is, they're lying!"

It's not surprising that those county administrators whom Walstein loves to mimic don't agree with him.

Developed in the 1990s, the county math curriculum is based on national research and better prepares students for calculus and for college, says Betsy Brown, the county's director of curriculum and instruction. The debate in Montgomery reflects a discussion "we're experiencing across this country," Brown says. "What's the best way to teach and what's the best way to learn? And it's not just in math, it's in all disciplines."

Walstein isn't just any math teacher -- he's arguably the most highly regarded high school math teacher in the county. He was hired by Blair's math and science magnet in 1986, when the program was just a year old, after teaching for 12 years at two top county middle schools and at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. He has been coaching the county math team since its inception more than 30 years ago, and, under Walstein's leadership, students have turned in some stunning performances in events such as the Math Olympiad (the test to choose who would be on the equivalent of the national Olympic team for mathematics) and the American Mathematics Competitions. He's also a three-time winner of a national award for distinguished high school mathematics teaching, and his former students include some of the more highly regarded mathematicians of their generation, such as MIT's Jacob Lurie and Jordan Ellenberg of the University of Wisconsin.

"He knows more about mathematics from kindergarten through college than anyone I know," says Blair magnet program coordinator Dennis Heidler. "He has an understanding of how the concepts thread themselves through the years."

Christina Zou, a 2008 Presidential Scholar who named Walstein her most influential teacher, made him the subject of a college application essay. Zou joined the county's math team in seventh grade and plans to major in math at Harvard. "Teachers have standards for their students, and his for me are higher than any other teacher has ever set for me," Zou said. "I feel like with those standards in place I have more to [strive] for."

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