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On Feb. 8, District 65 administrators presented changes in both the curriculum and pacing of the middle school math program in its update to the Board. Beginning in the fall of 2021, the District will no longer offer the accelerated Math 6/7 course, replacing it instead with a three-year sequence for all students using the Desmos core curriculum, said David Wartowski, Director of STEM at the District.
As a result of these changes, the District will discontinue district-wide math placement testing and eliminate the geometry program, which has traditionally been offered at both the middle schools and Evanston Township High School.
Eliminating this opportunity for some students could put them at a disadvantage when they enter ETHS, since private schools here continue to send some of their middle-school students to the high school for geometry.
The Desmos course, based on the Common Core Curriculum, combines four math standards into three, with each standard “outlining what each student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade,” according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Administrators and Board members indicated they see the new curriculum as offering both rigor and equity, as all students will take the same classes, but within the curriculum there will be opportunities for deeper learning.
Opportunities for acceleration in the form of grade skipping will be an option only on a limited, case-by-case basis. If students who follow the single pathway wish to access multivariable calculus – the highest-level math class offered at ETHS – they can do so by taking geometry over the summer or through independent study, Mr. Wartowski said.
That only about 25% of District 65 students who are accelerated continue to take multivariable calculus – they “drop out” – was the main reason District 65 administrators gave in eliminating the geometry program, which they said is a cost-saving measure.
Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at ETHS, told the RoundTable, “While taking MV Calculus/Linear Algebra is important, it’s also important to note that students do not “drop out” of the math sequence. It is more accurate to say that while some students choose to take the BC Calculus AP and MV Calculus/Linear Algebra path, other students choose to take AB Calculus AP and then AP Statistics or BC Calculus AP. These decisions are often driven by student interest and post-secondary plans. With either choice, students end up taking four years of mathematics, including two years of college-level math. Students do not ‘drop out’ of mathematics at ETHS.”
Concerns With Prior Math Programs
Because the pandemic forced schools to close last spring, the District did not have standardized test scores to decide on math placement for the current year, according to a memo from Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction, and Mr. Wartowski.
This pause in acceleration offered the administrators the opportunity to address what they regarded as a “historically flawed” math system, Dr. Beardsley and Mr. Wartowski wrote. Among the flaws in the old system, they said, were that a fifth-grader’s math scores determined the math trajectory through high school. In addition, the aspect of the former program that collapsed two years into one led many students to learn material quickly rather than in depth. An impediment to the success of all students, they said, was that few minority students were accelerated, giving the program a racialized tone.
In the spring, they wrote, “we were in a position to either repurpose other existing data to approximate cutoffs that would allow continued alternate placement or to maintain next-grade placement.” Repurposing data could result in less accurate placements. Further, “We already understood the limitations and negative impacts of the historical system and did not see it as best practice to expend expansive efforts to replicate an already flawed system. The latter, however, offered an opportunity to provide access to challenge for all students.”
Dr. Beardsley and Mr. Wartowski listed the following goals in the District’s approach to acceleration this year:
- Access to rigor as a right for all students, deepened learning within each grade level;
- Increased high-school readiness;
- Maintained or increased access to the highest levels of math in high school; and
- Decreased or erased racial inequities that have existed historically in the previous system.
District 65 is one of only 40 districts of the 1,200 that applied to be able to use the Desmos curriculum, which was built from the Illustrative Math curriculum. The curriculum allows students to delve more deeply into certain aspects of mathematics, as deemed appropriate for each student.
Stories about math curricula at District 65 can be found here:
Limited Acceleration Required by State Law
Dr. Beardsley and Mr. Wartowski wrote that this curriculum “has more success and more emphasis on creating mathematical mindsets and a general emphasis on rigor.” It has “tiered” tasks that will allow for individual paces and still keep all students on track for learning four standards during their three years of middle school.
Students who are ready for geometry may take a summer course or study it independently, the administrators said. Grade-skipping will be limited, case-by-case, and granted according to standards and State law.
Board President Anya Tanyavutti said she was concerned that there would still be opportunity for acceleration, because “it seems like that in itself lends itself to opportunity hoarding. Is there any thought being put into how to resist that inclination or that that type of engagement?”
Dr. Beardsley said, “We will be honoring the requirements of the State law, which has particular requirements about notification and about who can potentially request acceleration. With the process [of assessing inquiries about acceleration] that we built, we engaged with a variety of educators from different disciplines. So the State law, in fact, requires that there is an intake process that multiple stakeholders can access. But then we are then able to review the requests and determine whether we move forward with the assessment or not, based upon our internal criteria. And so the process that has been developed by the team of educators can help us support and weed out requests that are have grounds and requests that don’t, based on the criteria. So we’ve got to balance both requirements, the law with a lens of equity and opportunity.”
Asked by the RoundTable to clarify balancing the law with a lens of opportunity and equity, Dr. Beardsley responded, “My response is grounded in a few things:
“1. Requests to be considered for acceleration can be made by a staff member, family member, or an advocate for a student. This allows for there to be an advocate in the case that the family may not feel comfortable navigating the system or advocating in this manner.
“2. The process includes a school review focused on academics and social- emotional factors.
“3. The process also includes external developed assessment tools that are scored based on national norms.
“The process with multiple opportunities for intake, a school based review looking at multiple aspects of student growth and development and the use of high quality externally developed assessments increase the likelihood of making a strong evidence-based decision and not one that is influenced by community pressure.”
Dr. Bavis said at ETHS, “Students who are accelerated, for the most part, do quite well in their mathematics courses.”
ETHS has for several years, though, been concerned about students’ coming to the high school unprepared for the rigors of high school mathematics. A story about ETHS’s “algebra problem” can be found here:
The Desmos Curriculum
Differentiated instruction appears to be the linchpin of the new curriculum. Success may depend on the ability of teachers to offer instruction in a single classroom to students whose math-levels may be as many as four grade-levels apart.
In describing the Desmos curriculum, Mr. Wartowski said, “The leaders in mathematics education would argue that the depth [of learning] is within the grade-level standards themselves. There’s so much richness. And that is critical. And what we’re doing is to not just speed along – that is not the richness and beauty of mathematics by any stretch. There’s so much to uncover within every grade.”
With Desmos, he said, when a problem is presented, students have various ways to address it. As an example, he said, he had recently seen a video of a lesson that involved the story of the tortoise and the hare. “I’m watching the video, and I have to describe what’s happening. But I’m also seeing it on a graph. And I’m trying to relate the graph to the picture. And my voice matters. … And that’s, that’s a big part of equity work; every single student’s voice there comes into play, and I have to build on other people’s voices. And so a teacher might say, ‘So-and-so offered this idea. If you want to stop or revise your own thinking based on what she shared, you stop and do that.’ And you can literally begin to see students’ words change. … And so there’s an interaction between the students that really empowers them. This is not about students regurgitating what the teacher has to say; it’s about them seeing themselves in the work and doing it collectively. And so I think that those are really powerful practices that allow students to come alive in ways that that are really enriching, and humanizing and challenging academically.
“It sounds like it’s also less about getting the right answer first, and more about thinking, be thinking and revising, which is a lot of the ways that we approach language arts. … So I’ll be curious to see the data as we go as we roll it out. And I hope we see that early, promising data,” Mr. Wartowski said.
The new curriculum, along with professional development and differentiated instruction, replaces “high-stakes” testing. The results this year have been positive, the memo said. “Our data indicates that the goals of the math program are being met. The curriculum is providing four years of standards in three years, already accelerating the learning of all students.
“The curriculum’s focus on culturally relevant practices and its focus on providing choice appear to be fostering a strong sense of challenge, excitement and pride among our students. Additionally, we are seeing an absence of racial predictability when it comes to growth rates.
“An analysis of the year so far showed little to no racial predictability in terms of students’ making expected gains in growth or in their sense of challenge and math identity. Students said they felt challenged and prepared for high school.”
More about the Desmos curriculum can be found here: https://www.desmos.com/
Board member Joey Hailpern referred to the Mr. Wartowski comments about the depth of mathematical learning. “How do we facilitate collaboration between children to solve your math problems, or, or any type of any piece of the curriculum? Because at the end of the day, I think the value of education is that we find ways to create curriculum that engages children, individually and individually, but when they can’t do it by themselves, guess what, we need to work together as a team to solve this problem. So my hope is that Desmos is like that. From what I’m hearing is, that’s how it is.”
Board member Suni Kartha said she wished to emphasize that the math pathway for all students is already an accelerated pathway. “I don’t know that our parents and our community members fully understand that algebra in eighth grade is already an accelerated pathway. So we’re already giving that to all students. … And I think the other thing that is worth highlighting is, again, the incredible educator involvement in this whole process.”
Ms. Kartha added, “It’s great to talk about middle school math, but we every time we do this, we are really missing out on an opportunity to be talking about earlier math skills. … We’ve got to talk about how we strengthen instruction at the K-3 level.”
Board member Rebeca Mendoza said, “One thing that I’m really excited about is what this is going to do for our girls. And so we did see those gains in the work that we did prior to doing this work. And, you know, women are sorely underrepresented in our STEM fields. And I think I’m excited at the thought of knowing that this could potentially end and interrupt that cycle.” She said she hoped the Board could receive gender-specific data as on the impact of the Desmos curriculum.
ETHS Weighs In
ETHS Math Department Chair Dale Leibforth told the RoundTable, “ETHS still plans to have students take MV Calculus/Linear Algebra, Advanced Topics in Math and other college level courses. ETHS will continue to have a strong mathematics program that helps students to grow, learn and develop their mathematical thinking, problem-solving and creativity.”
Dr. Bavis told the RoundTable, “While we do not have a formal position on the new mathematics program, it is correct to say that we were briefed on the new math program and that it appears to fit well in terms of preparing students for ETHS’s math sequence. While we do not evaluate District 65 programs or curriculum, we will continue to monitor student achievement in our mathematics program.”
At a District 202 Board meeting earlier this year, Dr. Bavis and Mr. Leibforth spoke about the alarming number of students coming into ETHS whose literacy skills are insufficient for them to take – or feel that they could take – some advanced courses, including AP math.
The District will monitor how students fare once they return to in-person learning and building ongoing opportunities for student and parent involvement.
In addition, the District will continue to offer professional development and communicate and collaborate with the high school about the math curriculum.
Dr. Bavis also told the RoundTable, “We hope that literacy is infused in every subject at the middle school level, including mathematics courses.”