NYC teacher: Stop watering down math

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Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies, a top Chelsea middle school, angered parents this week when its principal announced it was scrapping accelerated math classes. The program, co-founded by teacher Maggie Boyd Feurtado, gave students who showed aptitude in math the opportunity to learn higher concepts. Now the school — encouraged by a Department of Education that is hostile to gifted and talented programs or any sort of academic screens — said that every student would have the same lessons. Here, teacher Feurtado explains why this misguided quest for “equity” is hurting all kids.

I am old enough to remember the 1972 version of the thriller “The Poseidon Adventure.” The SS Poseidon, traveling from New York to Greece on its final cruise, is hit by a tsunami and capsizes. A large contingent of people remains in the ballroom waiting for help. A small group, led by Gene Hackman, decides to climb to the top of the ship, which is really the bottom because the ship is upside down. Along the way, Gene Hackman’s group encounters another group that is making its way to the top of the ship, which is underwater. Hackman says, “You’re going the wrong way, dammit.” They do not listen and do not survive.

We are going the wrong way on education.

We hear phrases such as “algebra for all” or “equity” but have different interpretations of their meanings. Algebra for all doesn’t mean that everyone should take an algebra course in 8th grade, or any other specific grade. It means that everyone should be exposed to an algebra course when they are academically ready. Today, algebraic thinking is fostered in math classes long before students take an algebra course.

This is done through problem-solving using patterns leading to generalizations. Some students grasp this quickly while others require more time. There is nothing wrong with taking more time. Yes, algebra for all is expected, at the appropriate time.

Ability-grouped math classes mean that no one should be bored, feel that there is no challenge, or be frustrated by the level of difficulty of the work. We want students to be persistent and relish rich, challenging opportunities at their levels.

Accelerated students develop a passion for math. They can study topics that are not normally included in the curriculum and can avoid unnecessary repetition. They have opportunities to be involved in contests such as MATHCOUNTS, Math League, or AMC8. They learn to appreciate and love the elegance of mathematics the way someone appreciates literature or music.

The intangible benefits of the accelerated math classes can have life-changing results — as I’ve seen from my former students. Fiona is at MIT, Zach is at Oxford, Jeffrey is at Cornell, Nancy is at Carnegie Mellon, Eugene is at Yale, Winston is at UC Berkley, just to name a few. So many students attend Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. All of them have benefitted from early exposure to advanced material.

Josh said it best, “I have now gone far beyond box plots and histograms and the Cartesian coordinate plane, yet though the content is different, the force that pushes me forward is the same one I felt in your room in seventh grade. With your help I have learned things far beyond what I thought I could; I have gone further than I thought possible.” He is now an undergraduate researcher at RISE Lab, UC Berkley.

In 2013 a study by Courtney Collins and Li Gan showed that both high- and low-performing students’ scores in math rose when they were grouped based on previous performance — not all forced to learn the same things at the same rate.

Yes to Algebra for all, yes to equal opportunity. Let’s challenge all of our students at the appropriate level. And applaud everyone’s progress. One size fits all math is not the answer. That benefits no one.

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