Dear Homeroom:

I have two publications about how a lack of sleep can affect grades, especially those of teenagers. Indeed, the Montgomery County Public School system (MCPS) is aware of much more substantial research. How long, then, does it take MCPS to build a policy given the good research?

Nancy Wiener


I assume you are talking about the fact that in order to make the most efficient use of its school buses, Montgomery County starts high school at 7:25 a.m.

I hate that we make bus schedules the organizing principles of our schools, and I think there are good reasons to open high schools later. But it is a mistake to say there is "good research" to support such a move. There is a little bit of suggestive research, but it has not been linked to higher student achievement.

For example, you say that research shows that a lack of sleep can affect grades, and of course you're right. But keep in mind that there is almost no research that if you started high school later, students would get more sleep. They might just stay up later, in which case changing the starting times of high schools might be called the "Establishment of the Inalienable Right of Montgomery County Teenagers to Watch David Letterman."

Some intriguing sleep research indicates that many teenagers undergo a hormonal change that causes them to be wakeful until about 11:00 p.m., but there is also research to indicate that human--and the last time I checked that includes teenage--internal clocks have been set since the dawn of time to begin sleeping shortly after dark. This theory makes Thomas Edison responsible for generations of sleep deprivation.

People in Montgomery County who believe we should begin high school later often refer to "the Minnesota study," in which a town there has reported that beginning school later resulted in higher grades and fewer discipline problems. But the research has not been completed, and when last seen, its evidence was mostly anecdotal.

The reason I am talking about this at such length is that it is important to know exactly what we mean when we say "good research" so we don't get lulled into spending money and time by research that is no more rigorous than required by the promulgators of some new all-cabbage diet.

Good educational research should meet the same kinds of standards as good medical research. That is, an intervention being studied should be introduced to a randomly selected group matched with a comparison group controlled for all relevant factors, such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, school size, and so forth. The intervention studied should be the only change that is being made at the time and not part of a package of interventions. And, of course, the study must use a consistent and acceptable measure of success or failure. In addition, the research should have been replicated at least once, and preferably more, before spending a lot of money on its conclusions.

Having said all that, I will tell you that there is very little educational research that meets those standards. The research on high school start times certainly doesn't.

There is another way to do research, and that is to analyze available data to see whether you can come to any conclusions about one factor in a situation by isolating it from other factors. Any high school student who is convinced that we should start high school later in the day could do a very nice math or science fair project along the following lines:

First, enlist a teacher or administrator to help you design the project and obtain the data for your school. Then, analyze test scores on the countywide math and foreign language exams for students who take those classes in the first period of the day vs. later in the day. Be sure to analyze the data teacher-by-teacher in order to control for any variations in teaching. Also, find out how many students have a significant drop in grades for first-period classes--that is, they normally earn As and Bs but earn only Cs or Ds in their early morning classes. Of course, if there are no measurable differences among classes, student researchers might be tempted to delay publishing the results until safely ensconced in college, away from the wrath of classmates. But scientists need to be fearless in their pursuit of the truth.

Middle School Math

Dear Homeroom:

How about telling parents their rights on Investigations in Mathematics (IM/AM7)? Middle schools are sending parents letters telling them their child's math placement is something other than the requested IM/AM7. Parents need to know that under the gifted policy, MCPS will provide IM/AM7 to any student who wants it. Middle schools can recommend, but parents decide.

John Hoven, co-president,

Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County

The class referred to, "Investigations in Mathematics" (IM), used to be called Advanced Math 7 (AM7). It is offered to a few sixth-graders, but more typically, it is offered as an honors class for seventh-graders who are either identified by the school as ready or who identify themselves as motivated.

There are differing opinions about IM, because it is a little bit off the beaten track of math instruction. It includes some algebra, some geometry and some statistics, and it introduces several mathematical topics, like number theory, that students may not see again until later in high school or possibly even college. After successfully completing IM, students take algebra in eighth grade, which leads to a high school sequence of math classes that ends with calculus in the senior year.

It is not necessary to take IM to get access to that sequence, however. An alternate route is to take regular seventh-grade math, which the county calls a pre-algebra class, and which works on things like graphing and performing other algebraic functions. Grade 7 math can lead to algebra in eighth grade--countywide, 30 percent of the students who take algebra in grade 8 did not take IM--but it is not as sure a route.

This is where a parent's knowledge of a child comes in. If a student was not particularly bored in sixth-grade math class this year and is a linear thinker--by which I mean likes a clear beginning, middle and an end--pre-algebra or grade 7 math might be fine. If, however, a child likes a challenge in math and likes working on a theoretical level, IM might be the ticket. To help make this decision, parents should ask their school about its track record in enrolling students in algebra from grade 7 math. If it's not strong, that pushes the decision toward IM, where eighth-grade algebra is pretty much guaranteed.

Either IM or a high-level grade 7 math instruction preserves the option of pursuing a math or science field in college.

And this is what parents most need to be aware of. Any sequence of classes that does not include taking and passing algebra in eighth grade makes it less likely that your child will develop and pursue an interest in math or science. For that reason, the Southern Education Foundation, which was established in the 1940s to improve education in the South, recently issued a call that all students take and pass algebra in eighth grade or, at the very latest, ninth grade.

Parents should begin to pay attention to this issue in the summer between fifth and sixth grades. If the child is particularly well prepared and motivated, parents should consider IM. But parents of even the best-motivated and prepared sixth-grader should be prepared for at least occasional tears, because IM is a hard class. Parents should revisit the issue between sixth and seventh grades, and they should push for either IM or a grade 7 math course that has a strong pre-algebra emphasis.

Middle schools that are serious about their math programs will offer extra support for students who are having trouble in math class. Sometimes that means a second math period, sometimes a smaller math class, sometimes a Saturday Academy. Such support usually provides the boost needed for kids who don't find math easy. If your middle school doesn't have that support, that is a nice little project for the school's PTA to work on with the principal and math teachers.

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