The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia allies with, then backs away from, controversial math anti-tracking movement

(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Pamela Fox is a mother of four and former lawyer who cares about the schools in Fairfax County, Va. She was appalled by the website of the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI), described by the Virginia Department of Education as its partner “to consider how to modernize and update math instruction” in the state.

Under the VMPI plan, Fox said, “every student would be required to take the same math class through 10th grade of high school. There would be no classes for struggling students needing remedial help or for advanced students seeking accelerated math.”

When I called Virginia State Superintendent of Public Instruction James F. Lane to ask about this, he insisted that the state has no plans to eliminate tracking (separate classes for students at different levels) from kindergarten through 10th grade, even though the VMPI website strongly suggests that ending tracking is key to the suggested reforms.

No, Virginia is not moving to eliminate advanced high school math classes

The VMPI website has been revised recently to say that accelerated math is still possible under the plan. But it also cites as experts in this field two organizations: the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics. The first group says middle and high schools should stop tracking teachers and students in math. The second group is more vehement. “As a practice,” it says, “tracking too often leads to segregation, dead-end pathways, and low quality experiences, and disproportionally has a negative impact on minority and low-socioeconomic students. Additionally, placement into tracks too often lacks transparency and accountability.”

Some studies have shown such harm, but it is difficult to find untracked math programs that work well — except at some charter schools in low-income neighborhoods that accelerate all math students. The Virginia plan does not appear to endorse that approach. Similar anti-tracking policies for math have produced an uproar in San Francisco Peninsula public school districts.

Lane, the Virginia state superintendent, is an experienced administrator, having led three school districts. He seems to understand how politically poisonous it would be to tell parents that every child is going to be on the same math track through 10th grade.

But instead of denouncing the idea in our conversation, he said assumptions about what exact changes would be made were premature. “It is just a thought process right now,” he said. “We are going into the community. We are talking about the standards. Nothing is even in draft form or is going to the board. We are just going out and getting feedback on what people think about some of these ideas.”

Lane’s spokesman later told me “he does unequivocally denounce the idea that every student should be forced to take the exact same math courses at the same time without options for acceleration.”

Lane acknowledged that many parents have reacted negatively to VMPI presentations dumping the labels “algebra” and “geometry” in favor of lists of “essential concepts.” This sounds like evasive gobbledygook to many people, including me.

“If it brings more comfort to align the course names with things that are recognizable, we are open to that,” Lane said.

At the core of the suggested reform is one change that would be likely to get much support — sharply revising Algebra II. That course has been around since the push for better math classes after the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957.

Algebra II just doesn’t add up when you figure how little it means to most students

Algebra II is frequently combined with trigonometry in the third year of high school math. It covers linear equations, functions, exponential and logarithmic expressions and other topics. It is required for graduation in 20 states (not including Virginia) and the District of Columbia. But math education experts such as Phil Daro and Harold Asturias have suggested giving students the option of taking data science or quantitative reasoning instead.

Virginia’s assistant superintendent for learning and innovation, Michael Bolling, said that he likes that idea but that nothing has been decided. “We are in the conceptual stage of making sure people are thinking about what is the math that they really need to be successful after high school and what is the best sequential order to do that,” he said.

Fox, watching the growing debate, said she is not convinced by Lane and Bolling’s insistence that no decisions have been made. “Any experienced teacher knows that without tracking, teachers will be forced to teach to the lowest common denominator and the brightest students will languish, or teachers will teach to the middle and struggling students will fall behind,” she said.

I think the growing publicity will doom most of this reform effort. School board members, both state and local, tend to back off from anything that draws angry parents to their meetings. In my experience, the best and most resilient educational changes start in classrooms and stay there. That may be one reason that they survive.

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