Math Switch-a-roo

Lately, I've had trouble getting the sequence of high school math out of my head. For example, in Michigan, where I work and live, most students learn math as follows:

  1. Algebra 1
  2. Geometry
  3. Algebra 2
  4. Pre-Calculus
  5. Calculus

Following this sequence, the only way for a student to get to calculus while in high school is to take Algebra 1 in the 8th grade. Since not every student needs or will be successful in calculus, most students wait to take Algebra 1 until they get to high school.

In my district, a quarter to a third of students take Algebra 1 in the 8th grade. It's safe to say that most of these students are "good at school." What I mean is that they tend to watch their grades and have supportive families. Completing schoolwork comes somewhat naturally to them. Their being good at school is one of the reasons they get scheduled at a pace to complete calculus their senior year.

As a school administrator charged with the task of re-thinking teaching and learning, I have to question whether this practice is wise or necessary. Here are some of my questions:

  1. What effect does being in a math class full of peers who are good at school have on your overall learning experience?
  2. What effect does being in a math class absent any peers who are good at school have on your overall learning experience?
  3. What effect does putting all students who are good at school into one math class have on the rest of your courses or your school culture (especially in small schools)?
  4. What implicit messages are you sending students by separating them by ability in this way?
  5. What data and research exists to support separating students into ability groups in math?
  6. What track record of success can schools who practice this method of scheduling math show to back up their practices?
  7. Who says that algebra should be split up like this? Is this best for learning?
  8. Who says that any math should be separated at all? Should we integrate everything and teach logical chunks of math each year?
  9. Can 8th graders comprehend Algebra 1 deeply enough to change gears to Geometry for a full year before going back to Algebra 2?
  10. Might there be other ways to sequence and structure math to better serve our students' needs.

I don't yet have answers to all of these questions, but I'm seeking them out. What I'm fairly certain of though is that math is sequenced the way it is because of tradition and status quo. We can change things if we have the will.

Last week we decided that all of our incoming 9th graders are going to take geometry. We're breaking the sequence to buy some time to think about algebra, to integrate all learners in all classrooms (from special education to honors students), and to allow my 9th grade teacher to focus on one subject instead of two or three.

Next year, I'm not sure what we'll do. What I'd like to do is teach all algebra in one class with two teachers and twice the time. I doubt I'll have the numbers on my side to make that happen the way I want, but I have a year to think about it, to share my ideas with others, and to come up with a better solution.