Monday, September 12, 2011

Montgomery County, Acceleration and "Rigor"

For whatever reason, a number of people really do not like acceleration. The idea of a child who is, by age, supposed to be in one grade, going to a classroom associated with a different grade either on a permanent basis or just for a class or two, is just something to be avoided if at all possible.

At least that's the message I'm taking from a fascinating story in Bethesda magazine called "No more math acceleration?" According to the article, the principal of Wyngate Elementary School sent home a note informing parents that because the district's new math standards were so rigorous, "the previous practice of grade skipping acceleration in mathematics will not be necessary for most students. Almost all of our students will be working at the challenging grade level standards this year and not in the next grade level up."

The article goes on to mention the dreaded "gaps" problem -- the idea that acceleration somehow leads to holes in one's knowledge, as if all education isn't choosing some things to study and some things not to study. In this case, it's a haunting problem: "Parents and teachers have long complained that accelerating math students by skipping grade levels has led to gaps in basic skills and mastery of concepts that haunt them when they reach higher level math."

Perhaps there will be exceptions; as the article says, "Don’t worry – this doesn’t mean that children who are truly gifted in math won’t be challenged. The curriculum includes enrichment and accelerated material that goes beyond the new requirements. That means that “students who consistently demonstrate proficiency of a mathematics concept will be able to enrich their understanding of a grade-level topic or accelerate to a higher-level topic,” [the principal] wrote."

Just not in a different grade level class. Because that would be a disaster.

The whole thing is kind of funny, in one respect. I'm not sure why people are so allergic to the idea of skipping a grade in a subject or overall. The whole concept of grades is pretty arbitrary anyway. My oldest son, Jasper, just started a new preschool where they do mixed-age classes. Kids who are ages 3-5 can be in one class together, and I suspect that 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds are much farther apart on development spectrums than, say, a high-achieving fourth grader and a sixth grader.

As it is, rigorous content standards are a great idea. Covering fewer topics in depth to mastery is also a good idea. But there's no real reason to take acceleration off the table, even if one does have very rigorous standards. Sometimes kids really are ready to move on.


Aly V said...

I wish them luck. Differentiation in the mixed level math class is a Herculean task. At least they admit "the previous practice of grade skipping acceleration in mathematics will not be necessary for most students." That means it is still an option for the very top tier. That built in flexibility is crucial. In my 22 years of teaching math to hundreds of students, I probably encountered no more than ten who truly NEEDED acceleration. When they were allowed to move ahead, they still earned the very top grades but they did not lose interest. The worst thing we can do for the gifted population is to deprive them of the opportunity to see the results of hard work. Too often enrichment is used as a distraction to prevent students from becoming bored while their classmates struggle. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." Let's hope the Wizard of Oz is as great and powerful as they are saying.

L. Johnson said...

Would the use, even occasionally, of vehicles like Khan academy help? It would challenge students at their level and free educators to assist where needed. Some school districts are adopting it full time!

Frank H. said...

All of the issues I have faced with teachers, principals, administrators, and board members revolve around the fact that they not only don’t “get” what gifted means they resent the implication that gifted children should be given opportunities they never had. Add that to the fact that school employees are by design successful products of school environments and you will appreciate that we are asking them to alter the very system that made them successful in order to help gifted students succeed. They find it illogical.
Don’t get me wrong. The school employees that I work with are some of the most caring and giving individuals on the planet. They are sincere in their belief that gaps are bad and that children should slow down and use their excess time simply being children. The problem is they were never taught about “giftedness.” The higher education system that produced them, never mentioned the risks that these students face if their needs are neglected. Educators in general don’t understand how a student that comprehends algebraic concepts at age 9 is going to react when they insist he practice the times-tables.
Is acceleration the answer? Not really. Every child has their strengths and weaknesses; even highly gifted students. What we need is better method of understanding and measuring each individual student and the ability to offer each student exactly what they need to succeed. Sound impossible? I guarantee it is as long as the only people making the decisions are those that are successful products of the existing system.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure (I don't live there), but didn't that school district have a relatively large percentage of kids in accelerated math arrangements? I think I recall something like 30%. If I'm remembering correctly, then I'm not surprised to see them back off, and it could be a reasonable move. I hope acceleration is still an option for the kids who really need it though!

Both of my children are accelerated in math, one radically. The one who is radically accelerated really needs it, his placement is the lowest reasonable for him. But I wish that he would get more enrichment and rigor too, rather than only acceleration. In my district, I feel like the math courses are too easy, and kids are just bumped ahead without the classes being truly challenging.

My other, older, child might have been better served by more rigorous classes and less acceleration, that just wasn't an option here. It's possible that many of the students who have been accelerated in math in the Montgomery County system are similar to her.

Jeremy said...

Ugh. I got to move up to 5th Grade math in 4th Grade, and excelled. Then the next year it was deemed an inconvenience because the math classes didn't align as well...and I had to take 5th Grade math again. Ugh.

Mick said...

Congrats to them for raising their standards and trying to serve gifted students in their own classroom, rather than run into problems with what those students will do when they outrun their school building's offerings. That was a huge issue for me when I was finally allowed acceleration in junior high (only after testing revealed that I topped out the SAT and ACT by then). I'd either get stuck in a hallway with a book or redo the class I'd already taken.

However, I highly doubt that those "truly gifted" kids will be identified and accelerated with an attitude like that. I was not in that district, but I attended a good school in a good district, in which many students were talented at math and/or English. Although Shakespeare and high school math/physics were my favorite pasttimes at 9, I was the class problem, not a student in need of acceleration. The "truly gifted" students identified were usually a year or two ahead in a subject and well-behaved during grade-level courses. By the time I was identified, enough harm had been done that I no longer wanted to consciously or physically experience the whole "school experience."

Anonymous said...

I AM in that county. One of the commentators is right, more than 30% of the students are accelerated in math. It's not done by putting them with older students (for the most part); it's done by ability-grouping within the grade level. It doesn't serve highly gifted students well, but works fine for moderately gifted or hard-working students.

The gaps, however, are real and problematic. The curriculum has a discovery element to it (where you are supposed to "discover" math rules instead of being taught them). If the child doesn't "discover" the rule, the child doesn't get taught it.

The curriculum badly needs fixing. I'm not sure that teachers or principals can predict which students will need more acceleration in a more sane curriculum, without introducing the sane curriculum first.

Amy said...

Frank H., you obviously don't work in a school! If you did, I think you would find that school employees are not necessarily people who are 100% happy with the way things are run at their schools or with their own educational experiences. You seem to be assuming that if school employees don't want to alter the system, it is because they simply don't want to or because they believe the system is perfect the way it is. You are missing a huge point that most school employees probably do not have as much power and authority as you perceive them to have!

Anonymous said...

We live in a district that did away with math acceleration a few years ago. My kids are both miserable with the math curriculum, both the pace and the depth are problematic. It has nearly extinguished any interest in math in my 11 year old daughter, whose used to consider math her favorite subject. She spent the majority of her class and homework time doing work that was introduced (and mastered, at least in her case) 1-2-3 years ago, thanks to a new curriculum that stresses "sprialing" or re-visiting topics repeatedly- death to a gifted math student. Her happiest class times were spent teaching less able students.

Micha Elyi said...

Oddly, there's rarely a problem accelerating the athletically gifted into competition with older children (e.g. freshmen playing on the varsity team) unless there's concern younger bodies might be more easily injured. So why the reluctance to accelerate the academically gifted? No young brain ever literally exploded in even the most difficult maths class.

Anonymous said...

I can tell you after much research and a lot of pushing and test requested I was finally able to get my son accelerated in math only. He is a second grader that goes to 3rd grade for Math. The school and most teachers were not supportive of it. I don't think they could see the positive of what acceleration could do for my son. They were only worried about the possible negatives. Well we are more then half way through the first year of him going to 3rd grade math and it was the BEST thing we have ever done for him. It was a success from day 1. He blended into the class well and now is at the top of his accelerated Math class. He is receiving even additional challenges in his 3rd grade accelerated class and doing 3rd grade enrichment. He is so excited about Math this year and truly is engaged again! I hope that people begin to learn more about the needs of gifted children and work toward better options or programs that will challenge them. I read somewhere that every child deserves to learn something new everyday. It has stuck with me. Because I can truly say I don't think he was. We considered whole grade acceleration but decided Math was his true gift and where it was more difficult for the teachers to challenge him. I am a true believer that acceleration is necessary but it has to be the right student. Not only do they need to be ready academically they also need to be confident and comfortable in these sorts of settings. I was met with so much resistant's it was sad. I feel like the school forgot to look at what the best thing was for my son and was to worried about the possible fall out of others wanting this and the additional time on the teacher. When done smoothly I believe this is a much cheaper way for the schools to challenge gifted kids versus the separate teachers and classes (although I like the extra gifted classes too). Our district was up against cuts and was reducing enrichment in the lower grade levels. This filled the need in fact he received more then he was getting from his enrichment classes.
In regards to the the "gap" concern. I have read up on this as well. There will always be gaps when skipping a grade but true gifted children learn at such an advanced rate they should pick up the gaps in no time. I can tell you gaps have not been an issue at all this year. If a parent has accelerated their child they need to be watching for possible gaps and making sure they learn what they need to. Although it has yet to be an issue like I mentioned. I just hope people can start to open their eyes to the needs of gifted children and be open to acceleration.