kitchen table math, the sequel: revision

Monday, October 8, 2007

revision

I've just revised the "Phase 4" narrative.

I can't tell how comprehensible this is to folks -- it's still not really comprehensible to me.

I am told, reliably, that in the past many tears have been shed over the Phase 4 course at the middle school in all three grades, 6 to 8.

To my knowledge, the district never once asked itself whether all that pain had to be.

Children struggling and failing in "accelerated" math was seen as natural, normal, and inevitable by educators and parents alike. Some kids had what it took to succeed; the other kids didn't. That's life.

Thus the normal trajectory of any given Phase 4 cohort, the 30 to 35% of kids tracked into the algebra-in-8th-grade track in 6th grade, was a war of attrition. One by one, kids fell by the wayside, until, in 8th grade, their numbers had been whittled from 3 classes down to just 2.

I think, all of a sudden, this year, things are different.

The parents are different.

Back to School Night, inside the Math A classroom, felt like a bit of a revolutionary moment. A happy revolution.

It was happy because everyone was there. At least, everyone I knew who had started out in the class, back in 6th grade, was still there.

Not only that, but at least 2 kids who'd dropped out of the track had dropped back in, and the teacher was complaining about the enormous size of the class. Twenty-six kids in the room; I doubt the school has seen that before.

I figured they must have divided the three classes from last year into just two for 8th grade as they used to do. That's why C's class was so big.

I was wrong. They still have 3 classes of kids in the track this year, taking algebra in the 8th grade.

It's not that these kids are doing any better than kids in previous years, as far as I know. My own child certainly is not, and he has yet to be alone in a boat. Something else is different.

Many things have happened over the past two years, since we came to the middle school. For one, the legendary math chair resigned. When she went, I imagine her aura of authority went with her.

The new young teacher didn't inspire confidence, and even if she had she was still a novice; parents must have begun to think perhaps the problems didn't lie within their children.

Meanwhile there were and are 3 vocal parents in this class alone, one of whom was himself a NY math teacher with 34 years' experience.

As for me, I spent a great deal of time repeating the KIPP/Europe/Asia message -- algebra in the 8th grade for one and all -- and I'm certain this had an effect. People here are nothing if not quick on the uptake. Once you know algebra in the 8th grade is an international norm, you can't give the math department the same credence when they tell you it's not.

As to that, one of the middle school math teachers has told parents that, realistically, only 10% of Irvington students should take algebra in the 8th grade.

If you changed "algebra" to, say, trigonometry, I would agree.

Of course, the truth is that I don't know what has happened here, nor do I know whether this is a real change, or a blip on the radar. For whatever reason, this fall, there we all were. Back in the saddle, bloodied (some of us) but unboughed, unto the breach!

Everyone looked happy. The air was alive with something that felt like excitement, the math teacher's jokes were funny, the math lab guy opened his mouth and uttered the word "remediation" and you could tell (well, I could tell) that your child's days of trying to pass for gifted in order to learn algebra in the 8th grade might be drawing to a close.

That is change.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

hey its tara, here is the website i was talking about where i made the extra summer cash.......... the website is here

KarenA said...

Well, Tara is at least persistent. I'm thinking Tara could use a few lessons in basic grammar . . .

Barry Garelick said...

Yeah, well, she may not have grammar down, but she's rolling in dough!

susans said...

I wonder if she's still Knick's girl?

KarenA said...

"Yeah, well, she may not have grammar down, but she's rolling in dough!"

Hmmm . . . if she's rolling in dough, perhaps she should change her name to Cookie.

Sorry, my warped sense of humor got the best of me.

Catherine Johnson said...

stop picking on tara, you guys

KarenA said...

Well, unlike Anonymous from yesterday, Tara didn't manage to evoke record-breaking Comments response.

Tracy said...

Congratulations on your achievements with phase 4. Well done!

PaulaV said...

KarenA,

I was thinking the same thing about the record-breaking comments response.

Catherine Johnson said...

Thanks, Tracy.

Unfortunately, that was the high point of the year seeing as how C. scored a D- on his first test.

Yesterday he said, "Well I probably have a C in the class because of homework."

The homework isn't collected or corrected; the teacher never lays eyes on it. He sends the smartest girl in the class around to write down whether the kids have it.

There are a couple boys who cheat, so they'll pick up a neighbor's homework and show her that, and she writes it down.

(Don't know whether she knows the boys are doing that. If I were in her position, I might or might not know, but if I did know, I wouldn't tell.)

Catherine Johnson said...

My friend, who has stuck it out all this time, and who finally went ahead and kept her son in this math track for high school, reported yesterday that her son flunked his first test.

She emailed the teacher a week ago; hasn't heard back.

Looking forward to high school!

Ed said, yesterday, We're getting him out of this track; we're going to end the pain.

hah!

He'll never do it.

Catherine Johnson said...

Of course, I would also like him not to spend the remainder of the school year telling me what a big mistake it was to have done this.

Catherine Johnson said...

otoh, I AM learning not to take the bait.

Catherine Johnson said...

Seriously, though, I (tentatively) believe that one of the things happening here is that we now have a "competing narrative."

A lot of you probably remember Steve H, way back in the beginning when we were all trying to figure out how to change educator's minds, saying, "Just put Singapore Math side by side with U.S. math."

I've done that, repeatedly.

I also started the Yahoo list, and wrote my Yahoo op eds, many of which were circulated around the district.

Other parents wrote their own op-eds; there was a small band of parents attending every board meeting & pressing these issues (I didn't even know about these folks!); there were two other parents hammering the administration about the math situation; the 5th grade parents came close to rioting twice, during Trailblazers meetings.

What does all of that amount to?

It amounts to something important, I think: it amounts to a change in the climate in which our educators must work.

Prior to this, at least in my experience (there's no way I can perceive a "big picture"), the tone of the district was boosterism. High-performing schools, schools of excellence!

All emails from the school board read like company newsletters and in fact were company newsletters. They still read this way, because the same person is writing them. However, he has been voted out of the Board presidency, which undercuts his legitimacy.

All news was good news.

All communication was strictly managed; "public forums" were held and "public comment" was taken, but the public had to raise its hand, stand, and state its name for the record before being allowed to speak.

Joe public never cut too imposing a figure in these venues.

The place where you can see the real change is Board meetings. Huge change, massive.

There is real, open discussion happening; respect is shown; people speak and listen to each other speak.

The public can sit in on district committee meetings.

There are other things happening, too.

SteveH said...

"A lot of you probably remember Steve H, way back in the beginning when we were all trying to figure out how to change educator's minds, saying, 'Just put Singapore Math side by side with U.S. math.'"

Well, I've learned that it's not simply a matter of convincing them that Singapore Math is better. In spite of their talk of understanding and constructivism, this isn't about "better", it's about "different". They've redefined math and their talk of things like "Higher-Order Thinking is just a cover.

This really hit home when I had long discussions with the curriculum head at my son's (old) private school last year. In spite of the fact that all of the kids were quite capable, and in spite of the fact that she liked Singapore Math, she thought that Everyday Math was more appropriate for the diverse needs of the students. (That's an argument you can't fight.) There was never an argument over "better".

At best, our discussion revolved around what could be done with kids who are ready and willing for more. Their answer had to do with resources, not "better". The school was small and besides, their kids do very well when they get to all of the fancy private high schools. Uncalibrated. Unarguable. When I raised the idea of "in spite of", it was not taken seriously.

Things are changing, but it comes very slowly and on their terms. Our public schools have more separation by ability in 7th and 8th grades, but the important K-6 years are untouchable. They cannot see that better curricula in the early grades would reduce the need for that separation. They are fixing the symptom, not the problem.

The goal of a "competing narrative" should be choice, not balance. I can't get too excited about flexibility and responsiveness when I shouldn't be in that position in the first place. I don't want to negotiate with them to get a better product. I want to go somewhere else, or at least, have choice.

Catherine Johnson said...

The only way we'll get choice here, within the school district, is to change the community's thinking.

I think that is happening.

Parents -- and this was me 3 years ago -- just don't have a way to think about what schools are doing.

If you haven't spent 3 years immersed in these things, you think "Why isn't my school better?" or "Why is my reasonably intelligent child struggling?" or "Why are all the black students in Phase 1?"

But that's as far as you get until you know more about the K-12 system.

At least it was as far as I got.

Catherine Johnson said...

Well, I've learned that it's not simply a matter of convincing them that Singapore Math is better. In spite of their talk of understanding and constructivism, this isn't about "better", it's about "different". They've redefined math and their talk of things like "Higher-Order Thinking is just a cover.

Right!

I don't try to change the views of the administration.

It's not about persuading the administration that Singapore Math is better. They're not going to be persuaded.

It's about bringing political pressure to bear.

There really is no "debate" or "argument" here.

This is politics, pure and simple.

Catherine Johnson said...

Our public schools have more separation by ability in 7th and 8th grades, but the important K-6 years are untouchable.

Separation by ability is being used, in my town and elsewhere, to lower achievement.

This is a critically important point to grasp.

There is NO solution that will work when "implemented" by most of our educators.

None.

When I say "lower achievement," I mean lower the achievement of everyone.

My district uses separation by ability to lower the achievement of the most academically inclined kids.

Chris did worse on his state math test last year than some of the kids in Phase 3. This is common.

The "answer" to our public schools is the political process, EOS.

That won't work, either (probably), but it's the only hope.

Catherine Johnson said...

The goal of a "competing narrative" should be choice, not balance.

The goal of a competing narrative as I've been pursuing it is twofold:

a) delegitimize education school dominance over K-12 policy and practice

b) make known the fact that "accountable" teaching practices exist

I talk about choice a great deal, but I do so tactically more than strategically, assuming I know what those terms mean....

I talk about choice to head off the tyrrany of the (presumed) majority.

Doug Sundseth said...

In case it wasn't apparent, supporting the alternate narrative was a major reason for writing "Learning in the Castle of Fear". (Did you ever post that on your other list, Catherine?)

Catherine Johnson said...

Not yet, but believe me, I will.

Ready for lift-off.

And thank you.