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“Accelerated” math will be the default for DCPS middle school
Most students will work toward Algebra I in 8th grade
In California, a new math framework calls for an end to learning Algebra I in 8th grade for any students. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, public middle schools no longer offer Algebra I in 8th grade (or any earlier grade).
These moves have come under withering criticism for “dumbing down” education for all students in a misguided attempt at equity. Instead, critics have said, schools should work to raise standards for all and prioritize interventions for students who are behind.
It appears DC Public Schools agrees with the latter view. It will make a math track culminating in Algebra I in 8th grade the default, according to a slide from their recent principals’ training and tweeted online.
Matt Kennedy, assistant principal at the newly opening MacArthur High School in the Palisades, shared the above image. It says, “Default middle school pathway ends in Algebra I.” This track was previously called “accelerated” math. By comparison, “grade level” math set students up for algebra to begin in 9th grade, but they would not normally then reach calculus by the end of high school.
This mirrors an approach taken by the Dallas, Texas Independent School District. As Jo Napolitano reports for The 74 Million, an equity task force studied the problem of Black, Hispanic, and English learner students taking honors math at far lower rates than white students. Their solution was to change the default, instead requiring students to get parental permission in writing to opt out of the higher math track (and the same for reading, science, and social studies, which it appears in Dallas are tracked, unlike at DCPS).
As a result, 60% of Dallas ISD 8th graders took Algebra I, compared to 20% before the change.
Dallas also did not find any problem with the new students handling the workload. Napolitano writes, “Last year’s 8th-grade Algebra I students had similar pass rates as those in years prior, the district said, with 95% of Hispanic students passing the test and 76% meeting grade-level proficiency; 91% of Black students passing and 65% meeting grade level and 95% of English learner students passing the state exam and 74% meeting grade level.”
Tracking, then detracking
Many schools across the nation reduced the level of “tracking” in recent decades, amid worries that tracking reinforces racial disparities. For instance, Sarah Sparks begins a 2015 Education Week article writing, “It’s no secret that gifted and honors classes are often whiter and wealthier than their schools as a whole.” For gifted programs, she cites studies showing teachers were less likely to recommend low-income students or students of underrepresented racial groups. Meanwhile, more affluent parents push for their kids to be considered.
For advanced courses at higher grade levels, many of the same biases apply, plus “poor students are nearly twice as likely to attend a school that offers only a few” Advanced Placement classes, Sparks writes. This forms a different sort of compulsory tracking, where it’s not the school necessarily sorting students, but the disparities between schools attended by high-income and low-income students.
If tracking possibly reinforces inequities, does removing tracking (“detracking”) alleviate them? In a 2021 Brookings article, Tom Loveless says, “Over a century… hundreds upon hundreds of studies have not settled the debate. … Research is more plentiful on tracking as a problem, as a source of inequality, rather than detracking as a solution.” And some studies found that detracking may have benefits in certain situations, but others concluded that detracking “may instead harm the very students that detracking is intended to help.”
A 2002 study by Susan Yonezawa, Amy Stuart Wells, and Irene Serna looked at 6 racially mixed schools which offered students a choice of tracks. They found that family expectations made wealthier students more likely to choose challenging tracks, as did racial dynamics for Black and Latino students. Such students who chose honors course might be the only ones of their racial group in the classes, isolating them from peers and creating “the double burden of justifying both their own capability and the capability of their race” to teachers and other students.
I haven’t yet seen something making this connection (though I’m no expert here), but what comes to my mind is this: if some of the challenges with tracking are about subtle or overt pressures from teachers, parents, and peers to push students into higher or lower tracks based on income and race, then pushing more students into the higher tracks (as Dallas did and DCPS now plans) could reduce that disparity. And, it could lead to students learning more than under the detracking strategy of trying to prevent students from taking more advanced classes.
Absent high expectations, families “geo-track” instead
Even when there is no tracking, there are tracking other ways. Families with the resources can just move to a school which teaches more, or pay for supplemental instruction.
Cambridge parents told the Boston Globe that they are paying for extra math instruction on weekends. After the policy shift, students coming to Cambridge’s public high school from private middle schools placed out of Algebra I about as often as they had before.
Often families address this by moving to another home in another school boundary, but only those with money can afford to. This is what makes school boundaries extremely unfair, even if there isn’t a better option — they are boundaries for some, but not all.
We end up with some schools serving higher-income populations of students who show up more prepared because their families could afford to pay for some extra reading tutoring if they were falling behind. That means that those middle schools have fewer students behind grade level, and can therefore cover more advanced work in a non-tracked class.
I’ve been talking to people at numerous DCPS middle schools about middle school ELA (English). The curriculum covers four “anchor books,” and suggests supplemental readings in each unit. Parents at Alice Deal Middle School have said their kids are reading the whole books including chapters assigned for homework. However, at other middle schools, I was told they just read excerpts of the books aloud in class and are not assigned reading at home. In some cases, they aren’t even getting to all four.
I empathize with schools where, whether because of poverty, the pandemic, and/or mistakes in how we taught reading, large numbers of students just can’t read the books. (Thankfully, DCPS proactively adopted new Science of Reading methods which we can hope yield better results — but not overnight.)
Supporters of neighborhood public schools would like to see families feel comfortable choosing their neighborhood school. Sometimes schools are filled with capable educators and yet, due to the population served, the school has low test scores. Some families assume the school is “bad” and don’t want to go. Sometimes racial biases play a role here.
If only we could look past the superficial scores and skin color and so forth, the thinking goes, parents wouldn’t have a reason to hike across the city to a school like Deal (or, worse yet, do that every year from pre-K just for the opportunity to be in that feeder pattern, even when they have no objection to the local elementary school.)
But, if schools really are teaching different amounts in high-income communities, that’s a concern. The useful-yet-horrifying DC Urban Mom forum is filled with families looking to get into a “UMC” (upper middle class) school for this reason. How much of this is bad data (or racism), but how much is real?
We could call this “geo-tracking,” when families with the means get into a school that provides a higher level of rigor, even if there is no official tracking.
How do schools effectively provide “differentiation”?
Schools face a difficult challenge. Students are showing up not all at the same level. Students from poorer families are more likely to be behind, since they didn’t get the extra tutoring, parental help, or maybe don’t even have a quiet place to study.
How can schools close this achievement gap and also challenge the students who are on grade level (or above)?
In DCPS, middle schools do have accelerated vs. grade-level math, which probably will get different names under the promising initiative. Some middle schools do offer advanced ELA now: Brookland, Eliot-Hine, Hart, Kelly Miller, Kramer, Sousa, and Stuart-Hobson. (Other than Brookland, as it happens, all of these are east of the Anacostia River or on Capitol Hill.)
However, DCPS leaders have said their preference is for mixed ability level classes. With training, teachers can combine lessons with their entire group and break-outs for smaller groups, some with more challenging tasks and some who receive interventions to help them master the core concepts.
This may be the ideal method of teaching, and is also difficult. Are teachers receiving the professional development they need to handle this? Do we need more than one adult in the room, so one can pull out a group of students while another works with the rest? Do we have examples of this working successfully, including in the shorter blocks middle schoolers devote to each subject compared to elementary school?
Or, should DCPS have tracks for ELA? Could the approach DCPS is taking in math, with advanced ELA but making advanced the default, be something to consider here?
Fundamentally, we have three general categories of differentiation:
Differentiation within heterogeneous classes
Tracked classes (perhaps with advanced being the default)
“Geo-tracking” where families self-segregate by school
The question is, which approach can work best, to challenge all students and close achievement gaps?
I do think #1 is the ideal for ELA, if we can successfully implement it. After all, no matter how far behind in literacy a teenager is, they still have the capability to discuss complex concepts raised in literature (unlike, say, trigonometry). Kindergarten-level books aren’t right for a middle schooler even if they only read at kindergarten level. But, they need support to be able to read.
At the same time, students who can read should be reading at least four books (and probably much more) on their own time in middle school, and having meaningful in-class disucssions about those texts. Some students will just consume books anyway, regardless of what their teachers ask, but may not fully grasp them, or others will not read them at all without encouragement.
Questions about the new math initiative
We saw one slide with two sentences so far about the new plans for math. I look forward to seeing more about the new initiative and how it is put into practice.
The second sentence on that slide, more in ed-speak, says: “Differentiated middle school Tier 2/3 supports.” This refers to the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS):
Schools track which students are in Tier 2 (needing more support to reach grade level) and Tier 3 (needing even more support).
I’ll be looking to learn more about a few things:
Does this close the achievement gap? Do we see good results like in Dallas?
Will schools successfully continue to keep the standards as high for larger advanced math classes as they were for smaller ones? There may be more students who are a little bit on the border. Hopefully being in an advanced class pushes them ahead, which is part of the idea. We don’t want classes to instead slow down and reduce instruction for everyone else (which maybe is what’s happening with the book excerpts situation in ELA).
Are teachers getting the training they need to successfully implement the “differentated Tier 2/3 supports”? How can schools support them to support the students?
How is the level-formerly-known-as-grade-level-math communicated? At one middle school information session, leaders took some pains to emphasize that grade level math was not bad — in fact, it’s grade level! Now that some students will be in it, can schools avoid having a stigma attached for those who do take that level?
Will pushing themselves in math create any disadvantage to getting into selective high schools? DC’s selective high schools have stopped using standardized tests for entrance, making GPA one of the main factors in admission. If a student could have coasted and gotten an easy A in grade level math, now they may push themselves, learn more, but get a lower grade in accelerated. But that shouldn’t count against them! (Arguably, it shouldn’t have before, either!) How will selective schools adapt to this?
Overall, I think this is promising and appreciate DCPS’ efforts here. We see constant headlines from around the country about school systems’ efforts that cause alarm, whether about misguided and ineffective literacy programs or trying to slow kids down in math. It’s nice to see those stories don’t apply to DCPS, and instead, its curricular experts are heading down what seems a more promising path.
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