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Posted at 5:00 PM ET, 11/ 5/2010

Montgomery County admits kids were pushed too hard in math

By Valerie Strauss

The highly-touted Montgomery County Public School system in Maryland has just admitted that it has been pushing a lot of kids to do accelerated math when they weren’t ready for it, and now will stop it.

That means that a lot of parents in the wealthy county could lose valuable bragging rights at cocktail parties when the subject of kids comes up, as it too often does in these parts: “You won’t believe what happened to Joey today in algebra. You know of course that my fourth grader is taking algebra.” Or: “What level is Susie on in math? Ohhh. Only on grade level?"

Montgomery County is one of the highest achieving school systems in the county. It is so well regarded that the giant education company Pearson entered a partnership earlier this year to develop a curriculum together that would bear the school system’s name.

My colleague Michael Birnbaum just wrote in a Washington Post story that school district officials announced that they are revamping the system’s math curriculum in line with the newly adopted Common Core Standards (which have been adopted by more than two-thirds of the states) and will stop pushing kids who aren’t ready for advanced work.

For years, it has been policy in the county for schools to push elementary and middle school students to skip grade levels and take accelerated courses. School officials said more than half of fifth-graders are taking sixth-grade math or higher.

But a work group looking at the curriculum concluded in a report that too many high school students lacked a concrete understanding math fundamentals. Too many teachers, Birnbaum reported, were complaining that even advanced students were unprepared and parents wondered why they had to hire tutors for their kids in advanced math classes.

By spending more time in earlier grades solidifying basic concepts, officials hope more high school students will do well in tough courses such as calculus.

The underlying dynamic is one that affects schools at every level and in every subject: How fast is too fast? How far should children be pushed?

Making a kid stretch to his/her fingertips is laudable, putting them on a ladder where they fall over is another. There is a point where pushing children to excel is worthwhile, and a point where it is worthless. That point is different with each child, making teaching something of an art (even if the overriding theme of school “reform” today is that teaching can be stripped down to numbers).

The county, in its desire to be seen as advanced, allowed too many young people to take courses for which they did not have the grounding.

In math, kids need a firm grip on basic concepts in order to progress, and too many children these days don’t get that, sometimes a result of mediocre math programs, and other times because curriculum is being pushed down into earlier grades when some children simply aren’t ready for it.

The school system runs some risk in this latest move; too much of a relaxation could mean kids who could be doing tougher work won’t. But if done correctly, officials could get the result they want: More kids who know more and can do advanced math when they are really ready to do it. What a concept.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 5, 2010; 5:00 PM ET
Categories:  Math, Montgomery County Public Schools, Parents  | Tags:  accelerated math, common core standards, math, math programs, moco, moco schools, montgomery county public schools, montgomery county schools  
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Kudos to Montgomery County in this. There are risks in anything, but this is a wise move. For some reason math is the one area that we feel a need to push kids so quickly in. I'm not sure why math is special there but we're creating a generation of math-phobes in this way. We need to be sure we are truly giving students a strong foundation so that they can soar.

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 5, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

This is a serious problem in Fairfax County as well. Would the Post please write an article examining Fairfax County as well? I am horrified at the "compacted math" curriculum in FC - the terms used are over the heads of most adults and basic math is not stressed. I almost flipped when I saw a problem that asked "how did you feel about this exercise?" WHAT? What are we teaching our kids? Math or psychology? Please, please, please report on Fairfax County. We know about the tight friendships of some Post reporters to Fairfax County School Board members. But please put those relationships aside and report on this for our kids!

Posted by: frustratedFCPSParent | November 6, 2010 5:57 AM | Report abuse

"The county, in its desire to be seen as advanced, allowed too many young people to take courses for which they did not have the grounding." The county didn't "allow"; the county DECLARED the students ready and PLACED the students in the Advanced Placement math classes. I personally know a math specialist teacher whose principal re-assigned her back to classroom duty (effectively a demotion and transfer) AFTER SHE REFUSED the principal's order to officially recommend some of her students for the AP math courses though they were not academically prepared for the AP work. The teachers in the classroooms are as much to blame for the damage done to their students as the principals and the MCPS administration for not having the backbone to stand up to the administrators. Shame on such progressive teachers - they are cowards and traitors to their students.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | November 6, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

You may not be aware of this, but in most school systems, standing up to your administration is how you no longer have a job.

Good luck telling a principal of a school and a crazed parent who has little boy or girl that doesn't belong in AP that they shouldn't be there. The principal is your boss, and the student WILL be put in there if they decide to do so.

Do you suggest that us cowardly teachers resign? If not, should we refuse to teach the child?

Get a clue.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | November 6, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

For this school district to admit what they were doing and be putting in steps to fix it is a big thing. Math is a very important subject and we need to make sure students are learning it but more importantly learning it correctly. Students, parents, and schools do not need to put students in those courses to just be able to say they are there but put them in those courses because they all know that the students want and will suceed.

Posted by: commodore_melissa | November 6, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Teachers have been concerned about this for years, and have voiced their concerns to the administration to no avail. What has taken MCPS so long?

Posted by: nunovyerbizness1 | November 6, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Wow, another completely empty headed piece from Strauss.

"Making a kid stretch to his/her fingertips is laudable, putting them on a ladder where they fall over is another."

Unfortunately, you overlook the key failure of the Montgomery approach. Rather than using test results to determine whether students have mastered a topic (and making them retest to ensure they don't need remediation), Montgomery decided they couldn't live with the achievement gap and thrust a lot of kids that couldn't pass a test on a topic with a 90% onto to the next topic.

You are completely wrong when you say kids can't go this fast. It's largely a matter of how much work they are willing to put in and a stringent system of verification that ensure that the social promotion strategies that you can get away with when the curriculum moves slowly aren't employed when you move fast. Yes, they probably need to spend an hour on it every night to move fast, but the rewards are remarkable.

Posted by: staticvars | November 6, 2010 11:42 PM | Report abuse

In today's schools it has become more of a concern of what level your student is taking as opposed to how well they're doing on that level. Students are feeling pressured to take higher level courses and are doing poorly in them, when they could be taking appropriate level classes and building their confidence in that area before moving up. Math seems to be the fear of many students, and this could be the reason why. Taking emphasis off of taking higher level math courses will most likely help our students pace themselves and be successful it the end.

Posted by: fleischerj1 | November 7, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

staticvars wrote:
"You are completely wrong when you say kids can't go this fast. It's largely a matter of how much work they are willing to put in and a stringent system of verification that ensure that the social promotion strategies that you can get away with when the curriculum moves slowly aren't employed when you move fast. Yes, they probably need to spend an hour on it every night to move fast, but the rewards are remarkable."

This is not just about extra effort but the fact that students in these advanced classes often need to learn the basic concepts on their own, in which cases their knowledge may not be complete, in order to actually do the work for the assigned higher level course. I was in advanced math classes for 11 years in MCPS and starting in 6th grade, I was often putting in between 3-5 hours of homework and studying each night on math alone and still getting Bs. MCPS clearly thought I was prepared because I was placed into them through standardized tests. Yes, I managed to get lots of college credit by the end of my high school education and yes, I do know math, both the basic and more complex skills, quite well, but at what cost? Even though I was very good at it, I avoid it now because the introduction to it was so badly handled. I am not adverse to work and extra studying, but making students hate subjects that they are good at by pushing them way too hard or unprepared for is just as detrimental to our education and society as not having enough students taking higher level math courses. Students cannot speed through these skills and emerge from these classes with comprehensive knowledge, confidence, and the desire to continue learning this subject if the system continues to place unprepared students (which is the majority of them) into these advanced courses. It is extremely beneficial for everyone that MCPS is revising their math curriculum and advanced courses policies.

Posted by: luckyjersey13 | November 8, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I think that our country should be acknowledged for pursuing a rigorous education for our children, but there is a point where it is too much for the student to handle. Fifth graders doing sixth grade math is acceptable, but if half of the grade is at least at this level, wheat level is the rest of the grade doing? My sister took algebra in seventh grade, which is typically a class for freshman in high school. I thought it was absurd for her to take it two years ahead of the typical period for the class. Taking classes too early in development just proves that the child is spending all of their time studying when they should be participating in other activities as well, and that they are extremely good at memorization, which does not guarantee that they will retain all of what they learn. Maybe this is the reason education in our country is headed downhill: Our children were pushed too hard, so they simply gave up instead of trying and trying again. Education reform is especially needed in this area; teachers need to provide material that takes some work to understand, but it should not be so difficult that it requires hours and hours of work outside of class, plus a tutor. Teachers also may need to teach the material better so that when students learn something (especially mathematics) for the first time, they can re-teach themselves when they go through the homework later.

Posted by: Eppleyg1 | November 8, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

I think that this is one of the biggest problems that our country has. One person tries to puch these children and then when they start to fall behind we pull the brake and say they are being pushed too hard. I do agree that you can only push a child to a certain extent but when you reach that extent try to make it further. Children are very resistant and its us as teachers and parents who bring down these children. We need to let our children be pushed, but we need to know thier limits.

Posted by: brownb10 | November 9, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

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