Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Advanced Math

One of the items on the budget list is a change to Advanced Math. I currently serve on the District Curriculum Council, where we are evaluating new math text books for next year, and I wanted to share a little bit about the new texts and how it might impact the advanced math program.

Please note: I am speaking for myself, not as official position for the DCC.

Much of the current thinking on teaching kids math has changed from when the LASD AdvMath program was created. Our current program labels children as "gifted" in math largely based on computational skills. We test a student, she completes a certain number of equations accurately within a specific time period, so we decide that child is gifted. The "reward" for being so labeled is that you skip an entire year of math concepts and move on to a different track. Our Jr. High math teachers report that this has created some problems in that some of the AdvMath kids have alarming holes in their depth of understanding of specific concepts. Basically, they learn some concepts just enough to get through the material, but they didn't master it the way their peers did. This includes kids who got all "A's" in advanced math.

Newer thinking on this topic is different. Experts now seem to agree that kids may have some areas where they are ahead of their peers, and other areas where they are at peer level- that the idea of "gifted" as being absolute isn't necessarily true. The focus is now on adapting the texts to challenge kids where it is appropriate, and yet make sure they cover all of the material in an appropriate way. The two new texts we are considering cater to this idea.

I had a chance to review both texts currently under evaluation for use within the district. There are a couple of key changes to how they teach:

  • The way material is first presented to kids has changed. At least one of the texts draws on Singapore Math presentation concepts, which tend to be more visual in nature. Feedback from teachers so far has been very positive about the ease with which kids of all levels are learning with this approach.
  • With the advent of better presentation methods, more time is spent on presentation and less time on sheer practice - and we've seen better results in comprehension and retention as a result.
  • Within the exercises the kids do, they are broken out into groups for advanced students, at level students, and students who need more support. This would allow kids within the same class to do different problems based on their abilities.
  • Both texts also emphasize evaluation at the beginning of the chapter as well as the end. This would allow the teacher to see that the student is "above level" in one particular chapter and "at level" in a different chapter-- and then assign exercises for that chapter accordingly.

That last bullet is important. Being able to tailor the curriculum to each child, not only at the "whole year" level, but on a week-by-week basis is a big plus.

One of my daughters was not in advanced math in grade 4, but was in it for grade 5. Grade 4 math was tedious and painful until her principal began pulling her and several of her peers out of math to work with them in a small group setting on math problems that were appropriate for their skills. This is exactly what the new curricula aim to do- tailor the programs to the kids' skills.

The district may still move kids into different groups for math (i.e. one classroom might have students who predominately do the "advanced" exercises), but the flexibility of the materials really helps in that we would be less constrained by building a class of exactly 28 kids who meet the "advanced math" criteria.

One blog post won't change your mind if you're highly intent on having a child in "advanced math" What I will say, though, is that the new curriculum allows greater flexibility for the kids and the instructors. I think this is a good thing all the way around.

For continuity reasons, kids currently in 5th grade will finish out 6th grade in the curriculum they are already using. AdvMath 5th grade students are currently studying 6th grade materials. Their next stop is pre-algebra, which is normally offered to 7th grade students. For logistical reasons, we can save some money by having those kids take math at their respective Jr High Schools. As a parent of a 5th grader, that's not terrible-- but I'm really looking forward to seeing my second grader work in the new math program.

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