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Accelerated Math Challenge, For a Student and Her Mom

Anne McCracken Ehlers's third-grade daughter was not doing well in accelerated fourth-grade math at Whetstone Elementary School in Gaithersburg. Becca was spending far too long on her assignments. She was confused. She was unhappy. Ehlers is a teacher herself, in the English department at Rockville High School. So she was polite when she asked for a change, but nothing happened.

Finally, the 8-year-old in the drama decided that enough was enough, prompting this e-mail from her teacher to Ehlers on the afternoon of Feb. 5: "I just wanted to let you know that math bunch was held today from 1:00-1:30. Rebecca chose not to come. I asked her several times to please join us and she refused saying that she would come next week. We went over rounding, estimating, and adding decimals. We also reviewed word problems that include fractions. Please encourage Rebecca to take part in these extra math sessions. Thank you very much for your support."

Amid the often bleak news about public education, elementary school math has been a bright spot. Test scores are up nationally. Montgomery County has been particularly successful, leading the state in this category. At Whetstone Elementary, where 48 percent of students come from low-income families, 82 percent of third-graders and 90 percent of fourth-graders last year passed the state math test.

But some parents in Montgomery and other high-performing Washington suburbs wonder if those big numbers are worth tears at bedtime. When I spoke at Silver Spring International Middle School a month ago, the only thing much of the audience wanted to talk about was a widespread parental belief that their blue-ribbon schools were not leading children to new intellectual heights, but pushing them over a cliff.

I have heard this before from high school parents. They like to blame schools for the stress of the college admissions process, but those of us who remember our own fearful moments with our own high school juniors and seniors know it is mostly our fault. We choose ambitious goals for ourselves. Our children mimic us. Ehlers's situation was different. I couldn't blame her for Becca's struggles with accelerated math.

Ehlers said she had been asking since September for her child to please be returned to third-grade math. But the school did not follow through. It seemed to Ehlers that they felt "asking to have her moved to a more appropriate math class would be giving up on her, telling her that she is a failure, that she doesn't measure up."

I thought the educators involved would punt when I asked about the Ehlers case. They employed the usual diplomatic terms for dealing with parents. They declared their allegiance to each child's "unique needs" and their support for "parent feedback." But to my surprise, they mostly stood their ground on acceleration for all. "We believe that every child will be able to achieve at high levels, not just in math but in all academic areas," Whetstone Principal Victoria Casey said. Erick Lang, Montgomery's associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, emphasized the importance of completing first-year algebra before ninth grade: "Getting students to accomplish that goal requires keeping them on the right path of courses."

That showed spunk and commitment to long-term goals, both of which I like. I still recall with astonishment the seventh-grade teacher at a highly respected private middle school who could not tell me whether her math class, and those that followed, would have my daughter ready for calculus in 12th grade. All that teacher wanted, she said, was for my daughter to be "comfortable," a word I hear too often in too many bad schools.

John Hoven, a veteran Montgomery parent activist for accelerated education, thinks that what Ehlers encountered was a bureaucratic preference for one-size-fits-all education. "The school district doesn't want to provide appropriate instruction to either fast learners or slow learners," he said.

I wouldn't go that far, at least not until I see data supporting the Silver Spring parents' accusations of unrealistic standards that have allegedly led to slapdash teaching and poor preparation for the next grade. I am looking for numbers to back that up. At the moment, I can blame the Whetstone educators only for responding so slowly to Ehlers's complaint. It should not have required a child's act of civil disobedience to persuade them to honor a parent's request that a student be allowed back into her own grade level.

"This is not laziness or coddling -- this is certainly not a failure on anybody's part," Ehlers said. "This is doing what's best for the kid in front of you at the time." Exactly right. But having seen how hard it is in less-favored school systems to remedy the mistake of asking too little of a child, I prefer a system like Montgomery's that errs on the side of asking too much, because that is a mistake more easily corrected.

By Washington Post Editors  | April 13, 2009; 9:11 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Accelerated Math, Advanced Classes  
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"But having seen how hard it is in less-favored school systems to remedy the mistake of asking too little of a child, I prefer a system like Montgomery's that errs on the side of asking too much, because that is a mistake more easily corrected."

I agree! Montgomery parents would not be complaining if they were forced to experience the alternative.

Posted by: dc4women | April 13, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

If Whetstone Elementary School really cared about any child's "unique needs", they'd take 2 minutes and listen to the child and his or her parents.

Whetstone obviously cares more about standardized testing than about students.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | April 13, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Asking too much isn't better than asking too little. It can also backfire in a big way by turning the child away from learning. This is also still treating children as a pack, instead of individuals who have different needs.

What is disturbing about this incident is the thinking that children (maybe all people?) learn in a linear and constant pace. Who is to say that just because the child is better served at a non-accelerated as a third grader she cannot accelerate as a fifth grader?

Posted by: slackermom | April 13, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Wait: they "declared their allegiance to each child's 'unique needs,'" but "stood their ground on acceleration for all"? So, basically, all kids have unique needs, which the school will support, as long as those needs are just like everyone else's? All this does is replace one one-size-fits-all approach with another one-size-fits-all approach. You need to look no further than the mandatory on/off ramp for GT in 3rd grade -- as if kids' abililities and academic fates are fixed by the age of 8.

And, yes, Jay, asking too much of kids who don't fit the mold is just as damaging as asking too little. I yanked my daughter from a (private) school last year for this very reason. She is extremely bright and energetic, so the school thought that it would be better to challenge her by putting her directly from kindergarten into 2nd grade. Except the 2nd grade curriculum was accelerated, too -- by the time she turned 7, she was halfway through a 3rd grade math book, and reading at a 5th grade level.

Sounds great, yes? But it came at the cost of her self-confidence and self-worth. Most nights started with a 45-minute meltdown; by the summer, when we had her tested, she was suffering from both anxiety and depression. She had a minimum of an hour of homework a night, sometimes two -- for ex., Monday was look up and write out 15 dictionary definitions, plus do math, science, and grammar worksheets. She was asked to do things like research and write a report on an ecosystem, with no guidance on how to break down the work into manageable tasks, plan out a the work schedule, find the information, sift through 30 pages from 10 websites to find the critical facts, or organize a report (rather difficult when your teachers haven't explained what a topic sentence is). And did I mention that she was SIX?!

The irony was that all of this "advancement" made her feel stupid. At least once a week, I heard "I don't belong in second grade," or "I'm not smart enough to be in second grade." Even in second grade, she was at the top of her class; her teachers and I could see how smart she was to even be hanging with 8-yr-olds, but a 6-yr-old doesn't have that perspective. All she could see was how much she didn't know. She figured that, since the teachers were asking her to write a report, she must be supposed to know how to do it; therefore, since she didn't know that, she must be stupid. She saw that the kid next to her wrote better, without realizing that he'd been doing it for two more years than she had. It became a vicious cycle; every time she got one answer wrong, it just reinforced in her that she was stupid and didn't belong.

When you demand that kids do things that are beyond their current development level, you set them up for failure, not success. I applaud Ms. Ehlers for doing what is best for her daughter -- even if it doesn't fit in with the school system's preconceived notions of what a "smart" kid needs.

Posted by: laura33 | April 14, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Here is a great website parents can use to help their kids in math

Posted by: paul1267 | April 16, 2009 12:16 AM | Report abuse

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