Parents Protest ‘Dumbed-Down’ Math

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Parents upset about curriculum changes they say dumbs down middle-school math plan a show of force at the next school board meeting on Tuesday, March 10, says an organizer.

The parents are upset about the possibility of geometry being eliminated as a separate subject from the eighth-grade curriculum at Thurston Middle School, said local parent David Flores, a retired director of alternative education and interim assistant superintendent for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. They’re also upset, he added, about being excluded from the vetting process.

“Will we show up in large numbers if the district does not give us assurances that the (math) pathway will be amended?” Flores asked. “You bet we will.” Flores said 50 parents are planning to attend.

Eliminating eighth grade geometry will hurt college entrance opportunities for advanced students, he maintains. Flores said his son, a fifth-grader at El Morro Elementary, is studying an online advanced math program from Stanford University.

A hybrid math class is proposed to take geometry’s place at Thurston, said Darlene Messinger, the district’s assistant superintendent of instructional services. The proposal includes some geometry and pre-calculus in eighth-grade Algebra 1, she said.

“We don’t really want to rush kids through math,” Messinger said at an earlier board meeting this month, where math changes were discussed. The changes are expected to give students more time to spend on foundational concepts, problem-solving and real-life application, Messinger said in an interview Tuesday. Final board approval is scheduled for March 10.

Another reason for the changes, she said, is that taking advanced math classes in high school makes the information fresh when students take assessments tests for college entrance. A student finished with math by ninth grade will likely have difficulty remembering the skills by 11th and 12th grades, she said.

According to the proposed changes, geometry will be taught in high school. Pre-calculus will be integrated into algebra 1, geometry and algebra 2, said Messinger. The hybrid high-school classes are expected to make students more competitive for the 11th grade assessment and the latest Standard Assessment Test (SAT), she said. The SAT is now aligned with new state education standards and typically required for college entrance. Colleges now expect applicants to take four consecutive years of math in high school, she said.

Another parent wonders whether “compressing” math in high school is just an attempt to improve college assessment test scores. “If we’re deliberately delaying acceleration in middle school relative to other districts and we’re ending up at the same place in the end, doesn’t that imply we’re compressing their education?” said Amy Hundhausen, an electrical engineer with Broadcom Corp. “High school’s a rough time anyway.” Hundhausen calls careers in math and engineering stable, rewarding and lucrative.

The school district is adopting changes in teaching and curriculum to align with the new California Common Core academic standards, which are required in classrooms this year. Similar standards are being implemented across the country in a bid to improve U.S. business competitiveness in a global market. Instruction will focus on the student’s ability to understand and apply specific math skills, which increases their competiveness in the job market, explained Messinger.

“You do have accelerated math,” argued board member Bill Landsiedel after public comments at the meeting. “It may not be the way you’ve seen it done before but as long as it’s as vigorous as it can be, you end up in the same spot…. There’s nobody on this board who wants to dumb-down math. We will not leave an accelerated kid behind.”

Administrators are ignoring parents’ willingness to participate in the transition process, claimed Flores, who said supporters have been asking for clarification about the curriculum change for a year. “We’ve been stalled and we’ve been given excuse after excuse, which is very disappointing in itself,” he said.

The district hired education expert Patrick Callahan, statewide co-director of the California Mathematics Project, to help math teachers with instruction under the new state standards. Callahan’s premise is that providing a math foundation in middle school enables high school students to better understand more complex math concepts such as algebra, geometry and calculus, said Messinger. Callahan worked with teachers five times over a year and was paid $3,000 a day, she said.

Callahan cited eight studies based on math proficiency of community college students as well as four-year colleges, said Messinger. The data is important because 30 percent of LBHS students attend community colleges, she said.

“The kids we are talking about, we expect are going to end up at four-year colleges and universities,” Flores said. “No offense to community college students at all, but we’re talking about high-performance kids. Dr. Callahan was comparing apples to oranges. By not providing this option for these kids, you’re really hurting them.”

Flores said his group surveyed all Orange County school districts and only one, the Santa Ana Unified School District, is eliminating geometry at the middle school level.

The new math curriculum at Thurston, said Jenny Salberg, the school’s principal, is being geared for students at grade-level as well as advanced learners. Accelerated students can move into upper-grade level math, she said.

Both the grade-level math classes and what is being called accelerated classes, she said, will allow students “the opportunity to get to AP calculus or AP statistics by the time they reach their senior year.”

Salberg said 9 percent of the students at Thurston demonstrate “advanced mathematical maturity” and require an accelerated math course. “They need a pathway as well,” she told the school board. Students already on an advanced math program will not be asked to change their course, said Messinger.

“All paths lead to calculus and statistics; and that was absolutely our intent,” Messinger said at the meeting.

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