Speaking on behalf of her department at a recent Mountain View Whisman School District board meeting, Crittenden math teacher Callie Ruiz said she and her colleagues are concerned that the plan could result in unprepared children being placed in one of two math fast tracks — which could lead to serious academic consequences down the road.
District Superintendent Craig Goldman said he understands Ruiz's concerns, but he believes the district is taking a "balanced" approach to the introduction of the Common Core.
Shift in standards
The outgoing California state standards in math called for on-track students to take algebra in eighth grade. The new Common Core state standards, which will be rolled out next school year, don't push for such rapid advancement. Under the Common Core, the normal math track will introduce algebra in the ninth grade.
Although Goldman said he is a proponent of the Common Core standards, he noted that many of his colleagues think that college-track students should have an earlier start in studying algebra.
That includes Brigitte Saraff, associate superintendent of education services with the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District. Saraff told the Voice that she believes children should be taking algebra in eighth grade whenever possible.
"The potential is always there (to fall behind) when kids get pushed beyond their limits," she said. "But I believe we have a lot of children in our community who are ready for that challenge (of algebra in eighth grade)."
Goldman, who has been working closely with Saraff and administrators in the Los Altos School District, said he also believes there are plenty of students who ought to be taking algebra earlier than ninth grade.
And so, in coordination with the high school district and the Los Altos district, administrators from Mountain View Whisman have developed a plan to offer three separate math tracks for students — "grade level," "accelerated" and "advanced accelerated."
Though she could not be reached to elaborate on her comments at the Dec. 12 school board meeting, Ruiz indicated that she was wary of the district's plan.
"While we acknowledge that there are many factors dictating the need for acceleration, we do not believe it is in the best interest of our students to push acceleration," she said. "We hope that algebra will not be the status quo for eighth grade math in this district."
The teacher's voice quavered with emotion as she told of seeing too many children struggle to keep up in math, only to end up with poor marks on their report cards. She acknowledged that certain students are ready for algebra and geometry by the time they reach eighth grade. But, she emphasized, those who are allowed into fast track programs should be thoroughly vetted beforehand, as the consequences for pushing the children too hard can be life altering.
"For years, I have watched students struggle emotionally with mathematics because they were not ready for the level at which they were being asked to perform," she said. "That's not to say that those students were not extremely bright and capable children — they were — but rather, they had not yet fully developed what was needed to be successful."
Struggles like these, Ruiz said, have caused children to give up on math entirely, or conversely, to spend so much time poring over equations that grades in their other courses suffered.
"We firmly believe it is better for students to slow down, so that they can finally be given the chance to fully understand the mathematics we so desperately want them to learn," Ruiz said. "After all, wasn't that the reason for adopting Common Core?"
Goldman acknowledged that the old state curriculum was often criticized for being "a mile wide and an inch deep" — a problem the new standards were meant to fix. But, he noted, more students may be ready for algebra by the time they reach their final year of middle school under the new system, as fundamental algebraic concepts will be sprinkled in with more elementary math lessons in the primary grades.
Goldman said he wants to allow students who feel they are ready to get on an accelerated track to do so. "Many of our kids and many of our parents want to see an option that allows an accelerated pathway," he said. "We believe it's important to offer that option."
The key, according to Goldman and Saraff, is balance. "We will strive for balance," Saraff said. "We don't want to be pushing kids beyond what is healthy, but also we don't want to become gatekeepers."
Goldman said his district is exploring tools that will allow them to accurately assess which students are ready to take an "accelerated" or "advanced accelerated" math track — adding that, like Saraff, he does not want to push children into something they aren't ready for, but also that he does not want to hold anyone back.
Minding the gap
According to Matt Hammer, executive director of the education reform organization Innovate Public Schools, the more kids that develop strong math skills early in life, the better.
"I'm hopeful that the new Common Core standards are going to do a better job at teaching kids deeper understanding of math," Hammer said.
In Silicon Valley, there are far too many low-income and minority students lagging in math. The result of this math learning gap is that fewer low-income and minority students are able to get into four-year colleges — which often have a high minimum-math requirement — and fewer of those students are getting into science, technology, math and engineering, or STEM, fields.
"This is an incredible job market that we have here," Hammer said, "and more and more jobs are requiring math and science knowledge. We need to make sure that we can prepare kids to pursue those jobs and careers if they want to."
Hammer said he wasn't advocating that students be pushed into math classes they can't handle. But, he said, any student who is capable should be able to pursue a fast-track in math.
Goldman said that the district is still fine-tuning its Common Core math plan, and he plans to listen to concerns from the community. "As a district, we try to be reflective," he said. "And we try to implement policy based on best practices and what's best for our students and our community."