The conventional practice of grouping students early on by mathematics ability raises questions that probably do not have perfect solutions: What about students who take longer to warm up to math? What are the best metrics for ability? What about students who will work to the level of students around them?
The new state math curriculum continues the grouping practice, but would change the way it’s done in Ridgefield. Teachers enthusiastic about the new plan spent about an hour and a half Monday night ensuring skeptical school board members that it was an improvement.
Perhaps most significantly, the new curriculum, called Common Core, would move the “identification year” to sixth grade from fifth. Currently, fifth grade teachers in elementary schools make placement recommendations to the middle school.
That means sixth graders would not be broken up by ability but would be kept at the same pace.
Some board members wondered whether that would put too much of a burden on teachers or frustrate students who are ready to move at a quicker pace.
High school Math Department Chair Lorraine Jacques said teacher training, called “professional development,” would be critical. She said sixth grade teachers would have to do more “differentiation” — addressing students’ varying needs — but there are benefits to a more diverse group.
“The students do see the mathematics very different… You want as many diverse ways of seeing and grasping the mathematics,” Ms. Jacques said.
Board member Irene Burgess, who was among those with concerns about the new system, later said she felt re-assured in part because she felt the identification of students would be more effective.
With the new standard, the process of identifying students for one course or another would be me formalized than going by fifth grade teacher recommendations from six different schools and an elementary curriculum that is aligned to old standards that are being phased out, Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Beck said.
The new curriculum needs to be phased in, Ms. Beck said, since elementary school students won’t go to middle school next year with a common core background in math, and the details of that transition are still being worked out, but moving the identification year is the focus next year.
The new system makes some other major changes aside from bumping the identification year from fifth to sixth grade. It reduces the number of tracks from three to two, and introduces some topics earlier. Notably, all students would learn linear algebra in middle school.
“When you look at the long-term results, everybody would be looking at pre-calc by 11th grade — and that’s everybody,” Ms. Beck said. Under the current system not all students take that high level of a math course.
There would also be only two tracks, instead of three, and more students are expected to participate in the advanced track, while most are in the middle track now.
“Instead of ‘that play it safe’ that you normally hear, it would be the opposite,” Ms. Beck. When placing students, educators could err toward placing students in the advanced track with the thought that it’s easier to migrate to the slower track if the student starts having trouble.
Board member Chris Murray was concerned about the ability of students who might take to math later than sixth grade to move to the more advanced track.
“You’ve got to allow for the light bulb going on at different times,” he said.
Ms. Beck said the new system would allow for better transitioning in both directions.
“The core content that would allow students to make that jump, if you will, is being taught in both courses,” Ms. Beck said, comparing the “linear algebra” course students would take in the slower eighth grade track with the “linear and functional algebra” that students in the faster track would be taking.
In the current system, a slower track student would be taking pre-algebra in eighth grade, while a faster track student would be taking geometry having already taken algebra one the year before.
Ms. Burgess asked whether summer school might play a role in preparing students to switch to the more advanced math track, in addition to its primary role of helping struggling kids stay at grade level.
Board of Education Chairman Austin Drukker said that idea was “interesting but it would have to be voluntary.”
Ms. Beck said one of the most difficult parts about the new curriculum is not just educating teachers and educating students but educating parents and the general public. She and other staff members involved in reworking the curriculum have been enthusiastic about the new plan, but board members were leery of the changes.
The Common Core standards were adopted nationally in 2009, Ms. Beck said, so they aren’t that new, but they are quite different. As an example of the difficulty in describing the system, she said the old way of thinking about math as segregated topics like “algebra” and “trigonometry” really doesn’t even apply because with the emphasis on mastery, each level is so dependent on the previous levels.
“If we were to go a true common core hardcore route, you wouldn’t even see the word ‘geometry’,” she said.