UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Multiple paths to learning math

All kids do not learn math at the same age, pace, and proficiency. In fact, educators know that literacy, math, and critical thinking skills are not age-specific. That is a key problem and inefficiency of the K12 one-size-fits-all education system. However, many schools adjust for learning needs through flexible acceleration and multiple pathways. As a result, not every kid is forced into or stuck back in Algebra I during their ninth grade year, even though it’s long been the standard course for high school freshmen. As an educator who has worked with many high achieving students, I’ve known kids in ninth grade to be ready for and successful in geometry, algebra II/trig, and even calculus. Clearly, one rigid course of study in math is not responsive to the authentic learning needs of students.

Thus, a decision by Virginia’s Department of Education that could “eliminate all math acceleration before eleventh grade” is a truly baffling and disappointing move. Providing one math class sequence with no chance of advancement before junior year will be insufficient to support learning, no matter how comprehensive the curriculum may be. It’s a step backward in education, even as it tries to rethink how schools can most effectively teach math to all kids. In schools around the world, math is often taught more holistically with concepts of numeracy, computation, algebra, geometry, and calculus embedded in lessons throughout all grades. And American schools may benefit from that curriculum and style of instruction. But Virginia’s proposal will not fix what isn’t actually broken.

Equally problematic is Virginia’s reasoning that they are holding kids back and providing one option all in the name of equity. For people who have spent a long time in education, for those who understand giftedness and advanced learning, and for those who work tirelessly to promote equitable opportunities for all students, the idea of treating every kid the same is outdated. There’s a clear distinction between equity and equality, and Virginia’s leaders greatly misunderstand it to the detriment of their kids. Equality is providing one path and treating everyone the same; equity is providing equal access to opportunity while providing multiple pathways to success and achievement.

The most obvious concern for parents and teachers is that students would either fall behind in a class they’re not ready for or be bored in a class on material they’ve already mastered. According to Charles Pyle, a Virginia education department spokesman, schools would address diverse learning needs and abilities by differentiating instruction, and doing so would expand “access to advanced mathematical learning” for gifted students. Of course, differentiation is probably the most difficult challenge for teachers, especially in classes of thirty or more students. It’s rarely done well, and the difference between factoring polynomials in algebra and taking derivatives in calculus is far too vast for one classroom.

Sadly, Virginia’s problematic plans are not an isolated case. California is following suit with similar changes to state standards that could ultimately limit advancement and disrupt learning. Wisconsin education professor Scott J. Peters has questioned the changes, pointing out how the move will hurt many minority students who are already advanced and in classes above their age and grade level. Currently in California, tens of thousands of kids of color are in accelerated classes, and the new guidelines would literally slow them down and stifle their learning. A move toward equity should result in kids having access to more opportunities. But in places like Virginia and California, the plan is to force every kid to be the same.

American journalist and curmudgeon H.L. Mencken once wrote, “The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry.” The desire of some people to make all kids learn the same thing at the same time at the same pace is a chilling manifestation of Mencken’s warning. The job of any student is simply to reach his or her individual potential. Schools should adapt and respond to each child’s needs, as opposed to inflicting rigid ideas of what they will receive at specific and arbitrary age or grade levels.

Virginia and California are making a huge mistake in their misguided attempt to help kids. Let’s hope Colorado schools don’t make the same miscalculation. 

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