What I hope to convey:
- Kids don’t need to be gifted to learn math;
- Kids need help getting access to rigorous math classes, and I will do what I can to help them;
- We need to stop treating kids who are not in the top track in math as if they are “weak.”
- The new legislation on math placement is being misunderstood in many schools and people think it is for overlooked Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG kids). (We have this legislation in part because the smart poor kids are already overlooked for AIG labeling.);
- Even school staffs who know the non-AIG kids must attend the enriched math classes have structured the classes so that including anyone other than AIG kids is very difficult. (The staffs didn’t think anyone except AIG kids needed math enrichment prior to this legislation.)
- We need accountability for implementation of this legislation, but we cannot have real accountability unless the state creates course codes for tracking ALL enriched math classes whenever they start, which is usually third grade;
- We need to ensure that kids who gain access to and succeed in the advanced math track (because of the legislation) are not put back in the standard track as soon as they are in the clear of the legislation.
- Kids need conceptual understanding of arithmetic and basic algebra for NON-STEM careers, but the standard math courses are teaching rote computation and when these kids don’t learn what they are not taught, we add more rote-computation classes for them. Makes no sense.
Value of Learning
I grew up in Galesburg, Illinois. My Dad worked at the factory and my mom stayed home while my three sisters and I were little. Mom was the first person in her family to go to college. She substitute taught after my sisters and I were in school. When we were older, she became a middle school science teacher. All of us did well in school. Most of Galesburg is working class, so when you’re poor you don’t know it. The doctors and families that own businesses were the exception. My Dad taught us to play chess, and he didn’t let us win. He was interested in us being good thinkers and hard workers, but never showed an interest in our schoolwork. Neither of my parents ever talked to us kids about school. My Grandpa paid us for our grades. We got 25 cents for a C, 50 cents for a B, and $1 for an A. I got as many As as possible because that was a lot of money.
College-Going Culture of My School
One of my best friends in high school was the daughter of a doctor. She was taking college prep courses and I wasn’t. This friend, Kathy, told me I was taking the wrong classes and she helped me select courses. She told me to sign up for rhetoric, chemistry, a blend of English and history course, and some others. We mapped this all out, and I went to my school counselor to enroll. My school counselor looked at what I wanted to take and she told me that these courses were for kids who were going to college. I told her that I wanted to go to college. She told me, “You are not college material.” I argued with her a little bit, but then let it go. I thought she meant there was something academically wrong with me. I forget what I scored on the ACT, but it was above 30 on every subscale, and I nearly always got As in my classes (thanks to Grandpa). I rarely even got Bs. Somehow, she made me think that wasn’t good enough.
I enrolled in an English class in which I was one of the few kids who could read. We listened to records of books. The teacher saw that I could read, and she would have me run the class while she went to the teacher’s lounge to smoke with her sister who taught in the next room. I had completed nearly all the required courses before my senior year, so I mostly took art classes. Since my school counselor said I could not go to college, I thought I had better look for a non-college career path. I was very good at math and art. So, I had been thinking architect. I researched and found that drafting could be pursued without a four-year degree. So, I enrolled in the voc ed drafting classes. (I was the only girl.) The teacher said it was too distracting to have a girl in the drafting class, so he had me go into the print shop by myself during the drafting classes, and I made all the hall passes and posters, etc. for the school. He showed me how to run all the printing machines. (Those hall passes came in handy.)
Even though I was not allowed to take college prep classes, I could take the advanced math because that was based on content mastery. This was the early 70s. Pre-tech boom. Many of the children of the doctors and business owners were in my math classes, but many were not. There were working class kids in advanced math. Galesburg was about 1/3 Black, but there were no Black kids in any advanced classes, even math.
My College Knowledge
A friend of mine’s mother helped me apply to college. I told her I had wanted to go, but my counselor told me I shouldn’t. I didn’t know about scholarships. I thought they were for musical or athletic kids. I had detassled corn, baby sat, and worked at the Dairy Queen and saved it all for college. I never applied for a scholarship. I went to a state school for one semester then was out of money. I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken for awhile.
I went back to Galesburg and became a waitress. I started at a coffee shop, then a steak house, then up to the local country club, Soangetaha. I had a decent salary and benefits.
Galesburg is home to a liberal arts college, Knox College. It is very expensive, so I never considered it. A good friend of mine’s father was an English professor there. This friend, Peter, went to Knox. He asked me why I was not in college. I’d help him with his schoolwork. I told him I couldn’t afford it. He thought I might be able to get a scholarship at Knox and he brought me an application. I filled it out. Knox gave me a full scholarship that they had for a girl who majored in math. I just had to maintain a B average and it would be free. I took it. I don’t know if FAFSA existed then. Knox needed something about my parents’ income filled out on forms. One of my sisters did my parents’ taxes for them, and she filled out the financial stuff that I needed to get the scholarship without telling them. They might have gotten upset about giving out income information, so we didn’t want to risk it. I kept working 40 hours a week as a waitress the entire time I went to Knox and majored in math. I got a teaching certificate for good measure.
Developing and Teaching Gifted Math
Knox had a program for gifted elementary school children. I worked for this program and developed the curriculum for elementary school math, and taught the classes. This was called College for Kids.
Northern Illinois University
I went to graduate school at Northern Illinois University and studied non-commutative ring theory (with John Beachy) as a concentration. Not that I saw a point to this math, but I loved learning it and it made perfect sense to me. It helped me understand structures and interpret things. But I knew I couldn’t afford the luxury of studying these mathematical structures just because I like it.
One semester at NIU, I was to sit in on a math class for non-math majors. It was a gen-ed required course. It was a huge lecture, taught by a professor on MWF, and I taught small groups on Tuesday and Thursday. Sitting in on the lectures, I could see how impossible the math seemed when taught this way. It was taught like rote computation skills. Several professors explained to me that this is all the “non-math” people can learn. A lot of the math majors had that idea.
Brilliant People Referred to as Weak Math Students
While I was at Northern, I was getting free tuition for teaching whatever they needed. I was asked to work with a program called C.H.A.N.C.E. I forget what that stood for. But this program was for kids from Cabrini Green (Chicago projects) who were identified as having the potential to get out of poverty if educated. They were in a bridge type program, and I was to teach them what they needed to pass college math. All the kids were Black and could look at you like they’d like to kill you (I know because they told me I needed to learn that look and they tried to teach me.) I could see these kids were really bright but had never been taught. They were a teacher’s dream. It was so easy to teach them. Two of them went on to be math majors and sent me Christmas cards for years. This experience made me realize how many kids might be brilliant but just not educated.
Friends Getting Ph.Ds.
Having grown up in the small town of Galesburg, Illinois, I was known as someone to whom math came easily. I had friends who were very successful in their fields, who decided to get Ph.Ds and were then expected to pass some statistics classes. Several called me back when you had to pay for long distance, and feared they’d flunk their pretend fake stat classes. They’d talk through what they had to do, and I’d see this was like 8th grade math pretending to be statistics and they couldn’t do it. And they’d be scared to death they couldn’t learn it. I wondered how these super smart successful people in their fields could believe that they couldn’t learn middle school math concepts. Concepts is the key. I didn’t know the non-math track did not teach concepts. One of my friends from Galesburg was getting a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages, and was a chess master, yet he thought he couldn’t do what I see as basic math. He easily could.
I was starting to realize that a lot of math classes are taught as rote computation and even very smart hard-working people can’t remember what they learned and don’t ever pick up on the underlying concepts on their own. Often, they don’t even realize there are underlying concepts that make everything much easier to remember, because it just makes sense. I never would have figured out there were concepts from sitting in on the big math lectures at Northern. This made me realize that brilliant people, who didn’t grow up in the Chicago projects, but rather took standard instead of advanced math may not understand the most basic math concepts simply because they were never taught them.
Sisters Who Were in Standard Track
I think the Galesburg, Illinois school in the 70s assigned us to math teachers at random. But, if you had Mr. Kessler and Mrs. Dunn, you learned at a level no one else came close to. One of my sisters, Jennifer, and I got randomly assigned to Mr. Kessler and Mrs. Dunn. The other two sisters got the others. Jennifer ended up with an economics degree from Knox, then an MBA from Northwestern. My youngest sister, Julie, joined the Navy. She picks up foreign languages easily and thinks it is fun to learn them. She spoke all the NATO languages, and had a great career in the Navy. When stationed at Pearl Harbor, she decided to get an Associates Degree from Chaminade. She didn’t have the math skills to take a for-credit course. She’d call me long distance from Hawaii. I’d tutor her over the phone and send legal pad pages full of explanations. It seemed odd to me that she could think, “I think I’ll teach myself to speak Italian…” and at the same time think she couldn’t learn some arithmetic. She ended up learning just fine, and tutoring all the other kids. She did so well that this, and her many languages resulted in the Navy eventually sending her to Officer Training and to Ole Miss to get a BA. She retired as an officer. The other sister never learned math, but navigated the nursing system, and ran nursing homes. She got graduate degrees in nursing. She totally understands the nursing home system, Medicare, etc. She could turn a nursing home around, to comply with all regulations, fill up, and be a good place.
Teaching Math in a Magnet School
Eventually, my husband (a Galesburg person with about the same experience as me, got a Pell Grant to go to Knox. We had never heard of Pell, but I had been at Knox a year while he tended bar and was in charge of the paper-boy routes for the local paper. He graduated from Knox after me. ) was accepted into college to get a graduate degree in engineering, so we moved to Champaign, Illinois where I got a job teaching math in a magnet school. I never heard of a magnet school. This was a Math/Science magnet. It was children of the university folks and the projects. All the White university kids were in the advanced math track. I taught all the 8th grade math classes.
I had brilliant kids in the lower tracks.
My Introduction to Lower Tracks
When I taught in this magnet school in Campaign, I was given different books and different curriculums for each track. Just as I had begun to suspect, the books for the lower track taught rote computational skills. The chapters weren’t even organized so that concepts built on each other. For example, a few chapters after how to get common denominators was the chapter on how to find a least common multiple (which is how you find a common denominator). I suddenly understood why the brilliant kids who were not in the top track knew almost no math. They just memorized things, and all topics were stand-alone.
I moved all the kids to the classes I thought they belonged in. I had a wonderful principal who let me do what I thought would be best for kids. I put poor and minority kids into the top track. I got MathCounts curriculum to use because I didn’t think the kids were challenged. We won first place with Black kids on the team. I didn’t understand why this was considered unusual, since these kids were brilliant. But, it was considered unusual. Our team was treated like some miracle.
First Huge Eye-Opener
I had Black and low-income White students on my First Place Math Counts team. I was to place these kids into their high school math classes. I placed all the MathCounts winners into advanced math in high school. I was told I couldn’t. I was taking too many slots. We all had quotas, and I had too many kids. When I explained over and over how important it was for these kids to be in the top math track (now that I had seen the standard track), I was finally told, “You don’t get it. We have to take care of the moms who bring the Teacher Appreciation Breakfasts, etc.” This is when I realized how it works. And why I could not take college prep in Galesburg. Before that I actually thought I was not college material. I thought it was a fluke and a trick on Knox that they took me.
I’ve always been a trouble maker. I insisted on the kids I wanted recommended into the top track in high school getting in. Later, I was at a district meeting and a teacher from another middle school was talking to me. She told me that they had to wait until all the kids I recommended for advanced track high school math were in, then they got whatever seats were left for the kids they wanted to recommend. I am not sure why there were a limited number of seats, but there were. I wondered then why there was a limited number of seats, and then noticed it in many schools over the years.
Math Tracking Had Changed
I also noticed that unlike Galesburg in the early 1970s, where the math class you got put in seemed to be random and based on nothing, math placement had become very controlled. This was mid 1980s. I started reading literature on math education, and I read that before the tech boom, no one really cared who took which math. School counselors had been told to try to find “math naturals” and place them with the good teachers, so we could compete in the space race with talent from the working class. After the tech-boom, advanced math became rare, valued, and well guarded.
Teaching Remedial Math at NCSU
When I moved to North Carolina, my Illinois teaching certificate was no good, despite my experience and the need for math teachers in NC. So, I could not teach. I looked into what it would take to get certified, and the easiest route to teaching was to get a Ph.D. in Math Ed. So, I entered the Ph.D. Math Ed program at NCSU. To pay for my tuition, I taught remedial math for students who scored so low on SAT/ACT Math that they could not take a for-credit math course.
I taught the NCSU not-for-credit algebra as if the kids could learn like the 8th grade algebra kids did. I figured odds were that they were like my sisters, and friends who just didn’t get the good math teachers in high school, or like the brilliant kids from the Chicago projects, and now I knew how awful and hard the non-advanced math track was.
Some grad students who shared my office got upset at me for suggesting that these “weak” students might not be weak. I’ve run into this mindset again and again –that the kids who are not in the top math track are weak and unable to comprehend math concepts.
Doing Program Evaluations and Seeing Data
After I graduated with my Ph.D. in math education, and minor in statistics, the accountability for evaluation of federal grants in education was beginning to change. Accountability included the need to analyze education data, and to ensure that services were aligned to the needs of kids as suggested by data. I got hired by a large school district in their brand new Evaluation and Research department.
About a decade ago, federal grants finally moved toward using data and aligning services to meet the needs of students, with goals of reducing the dropout rates and preparing more students to be college-ready. I saw that many programs had students enrolled who did not need the services because they were academically fine. I started a company to do program evaluations and also to help school districts align services to get the outcomes they wanted. They all wanted to raise achievement and close gaps. I figured step 1 would be to find the low-hanging fruit–brilliant kids who had never had advanced math classes, and get them in to advanced math. And, as we helped educators identify students who were likely to succeed in advanced math, we saw tremendous push back to letting students enroll.
Data showed that low-income and minority kids with scores higher than kids in the advanced track were not in the advanced math track. Everyone would benefit from the way advanced math is taught, but at the very least, the top scoring kids should have access. We helped school counselors and School Improvement Teams identify the top scoring kids and move them to the advanced track. There was huge push back on this. Here is a link to a story about one school we helped.
It is hard to explain the resistance to giving kids access to advanced math. But it was there at a level that surprised me. We have also been told by educators who were working on grant-funded projects that some school counselors won’t let kids take the courses required for college admission because they “are not college material.” We hear this regularly.
Over the last 20 years, we have helped parents advocate to give their kids access to advanced math.
Why Does it Matter and How Many Kids Are We Missing?
When we were doing Data Academies to help educators learn to use data, we saw so much resistance to allowing students access to advanced math even when the data said they had mastered the previous content at a high level. They had to be hand-selected and invited in. And only certain kinds of kids were being invited.
People argued that it didn’t matter when students took algebra. So, we ran a statewide analyses of the data, working with both SAS and NC Association of School Administrators (NCASA), to compare top scoring students who took algebra in 8th grade vs. 9th. Level 3 students who took 8th grade algebra were 55 times more likely to take chemistry and physics than similar students who took 9th grade algebra, and almost no one ever went into the Honors track from 9th grade algebra no matter how well they did. (This is because 9th grade algebra teaches the students as if they are weak and can only memorize procedures, while 8th grade algebra prepares students to understand math and be able to learn science.)
SAS created a report for each county that was attending the NCASA data workshops to illustrate how many kids were being overlooked for the top math track, and why it mattered. Here is one example. (These reports could be run very easily, but they have not been run again.)
Although NC has EVAAS, the predictive analytics system that has a built in report for identifying students to place into advanced math who are likely to succeed, and the legislation could have used EVAAS to identify students for advanced placement, it is restricted to Level 5 kids. Implementing HB986_Presentation from NCDPI_April 2019 (Level 5 is the highest possible level on the standardized math test). Kids who are not invited in have to score Level 5 to gain access.
NC Math Access Policy
NC now has legislated that students who score the highest possible score have to be given the most enriched math lessons. This is to start in 3rd grade.
In our work with schools all over the state, we are finding that many elementary schools have been providing enriched math lessons to kids who have been labeled Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG), and only to them. The school day isn’t set up to make it easy to provide these lessons to kids who are not labeled AIG.
We know both from our work, and from (Implementing HB986_Presentation from NCDPI_April 2019, ) a presentation given by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, that nearly half the kids in the advanced math did not score at the highest level and some even score at the lowest level. This law will only give access to those over looked who scored at the highest level. It’s a start.
We also know from the N&O series, Counted Out, that low-income kids are not as likely to be labeled AIG as academically similar non-poor kids. And, there is no real definition for AIG. It differs across school systems.
BEST-NC has done a great job of raising awareness, advocating for children, and providing information.
Confusion in the Schools
Many of the schools we are working with have told us that they thought the new math placement law was only for AIG students who may have been overlooked. The NC DPI AIG department is helping the schools implement this law, and many of them inferred from this that this was for AIG kids.
Accountability for the Legislation
Currently, no data set could be checked to see if all top scoring elementary school kids are being given the enriched math lessons that the AIG kids get whether they are top scoring or not. To be able to check with data, schools would have to enroll students in the course, with a course number. This could be done but it is not done now.
In middle school, currently the advanced 6th and 7th grade math classes have the same name and course number as the standard classes. So, there is no way to tell from a data set who is enrolled.
There cannot be any accountability for implementing this law before 8th grade unless course numbers distinguish standard from enriched/accelerated courses.
In 8th grade, it is possible to tell who is in Math I/Algebra by the course code.
We have seen kids assigned to 8th grade algebra after the parents and advocates worked to help them gain access, and the kid succeeds with A or B, and then is made to repeat the course in 9th grade and is back on the standard track. We have seen a lot of this. We see it in the data. IApparently, this practice is not unusual, as California had to modify their math placement legislation because of this practice.
North Carolina needs a way to make sure our kids who gain access to the advanced track and are successful are not then put back on the standard track.
Somehow our educational culture morphed into some belief that only kids who are labeled as gifted can learn enriched math in elementary school. Then of course, those kids would be ahead in understanding math by middle school due to the enriched experience. Math has become a subject that is treated as if only some people can learn it. I can’t tell if people believe that or if this has become a way to reproduce income classes, by only giving access to people who can get labeled when young.