I am writing in response to “Making Math Matter More,” a guest essay written by the D65 Math Matters group. As a long-time Evanston resident who has been involved with mathematics and science education at various levels for 37 years, I appreciate community discussions about the mathematics education in our schools, and I have been following with interest the discussions around differentiation and acceleration that have been raised by the Math Matters group over the past year.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am the executive director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education (CEMSE), which houses the author group for Everyday Mathematics, the mathematics curriculum used in District 65’s K-5 classrooms and which apparently is not a big favorite of the Math Matters group.
I am also the spouse of a senior District 65 administrator (Joyce Bartz). My comments here are independent of these two relationships.
The Math Matters essay raises several important issues, but, while the essay is framed around a collection of suggestions that are intended to be constructive, the underlying foundation of the essay is that Math Matters does not believe District 65 is doing a particularly good job with mathematics instruction. The essay makes several major assertions, most significantly that the District’s performance in mathematics is declining and that the needs of struggling students and high achieving students are not being addressed. The recommendations made by Math Matters in the essay are based upon those two assertions. It is therefore worth looking more closely at them.
It is possible that Math Matters has information they have not shared about the District 65 context that is influencing their assertions but, independently, I don’t understand their claims that the District’s ISAT scores are declining or that the District’s math instruction is failing large groups of students.
Looking at the Achievement Reports on the District 65 website and at analyses printed in the RoundTable, it seems clear to me that District 65’s math scores have been remarkably consistent over the years –consistently much higher than the rest of the state overall and with all subgroups (including African American and Hispanic students), consistently with more students in the top quartile than the state, and with a growth rate that is higher than that of the rest of the state.
The RoundTable reported recently on a recent presentation at a Board of Education meeting that also showed how the District’s student achievement in mathematics compares favorably to neighboring districts and other districts with similar demographics.
The achievement data also show that the District’s highest-performing students, who are a particular concern of Math Matters, are doing especially well relative to the State and neighboring districts.
But beyond their test scores in District 65, those students go on to ETHS and perform at high levels. They succeed in Advanced Placement mathematics and science courses in high numbers. They participate in the ETHS mathematics team, which is perennially one of the state’s top teams. They distinguish themselves in high-level science competitions. Many are accepted in the nation’s most highly competitive universities and pursue careers in mathematics, science and other STEM disciplines. Those successful students got their mathematical foundations in District 65 schools.
Nobody likely would argue that everything is perfect with any aspect of District 65’s mathematics program. The achievement data highlight clear areas where the district needs to develop new approaches, especially for increasing the success rates of African American and Hispanic students. However, the assertion that the program is failing, even with those subgroups, seems off base.
The Math Matters comments on differentiation, which is a particular professional interest of mine, seem similarly misplaced. Math Matters frames its comments within an equity context, purporting to support the needs of struggling students as well as high achieving students.
However, they fall into the familiar practice of citing a single study that supports their assertions while ignoring the larger body of research that shows how damaging the lower tracked classes typically become for the mathematics learning of students in those classes. Using an equity argument involving students at both ends of the ability spectrum to promote an agenda that basically targets the top-tier students is disingenuous.
If we are to approach the challenges involved with differentiation and acceleration in mathematics, we need to base our discussions and advocacy on evidence rather than beliefs and a subset of the research base.
Inaccurate or incomplete portrayals of achievement data and the research literature transform important discussions into political arguments rather than informed dialogue. Nobody is served well by that experience and it has been divisive in other communities.
The new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics provide an opportunity for considering the difficult questions around differentiation and acceleration that are being raised by Math Matters.
The Common Core Standards have redefined expectations for grade levels and moved many topics that previously were in Algebra I into the core middle grades curriculum, while adding other new and challenging topics and requiring deeper understanding of the underlying concepts and mathematical practices. Similar changes are incorporated into the standards for high school courses. The new mathematics standards have established more rigorous learning expectations for every student in Districts 65 and 202. Implementation of the new standards forces districts to consider a variety of factors, including plans for supporting teachers in their implementation of new programs that reflect standards.
District 65 cannot address these issues alone. The fundamental concern is not students’ mathematics preparation at the end of Grade 8 but where they end up at the end of Grade 12 and how the mathematics they learned along the way influences the rest of their lives. District 65 can no longer think about these issues independently of District 202, and vice versa.
We need a coordinated set of policies and programs for mathematics that takes our students from the elementary grades, to the middle grades, and through high school.
Let’s take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Common Core State Standards to have a rich and meaningful K-12 discussion about students’ mathematics education. Only then will the issues raised by Math Matters get the appropriate attention they need.