Tracy Frank, Sun Prairie, WI firstname.lastname@example.org
If I could change one thing about middle school math it would be for us to stop using middle school math placement as the marker of status in schools. In fact I believe schools should be a place where we work to equalize status instead of mimicking the status that students have or do not have outside of the classroom.
What I have seen play out in over 100 middle schools that I have visited and supported as a teacher leader and instructional coach for CPM Educational Program over the past 10 years is that middle school math placement means that white and Asian middle to upper class students have the most access to accelerated math. Years of messages about who is good at math leads to these students having positive math identities. In general, the status that the students walk into the building with, from their social position outside of school, is maintained in middle schools through the use of math placement. The idea that there are kids that are better than others or less than others is never directly said to any students, yet the students clearly see who is in which classrooms and base their own math mindsets, sense of math agency, and their math identities, around this systematic decision of middle school math placement. I have visited middle schools in five different states, in rural, suburban and urban settings, and I have seen this to be true in all of these cases. Those students with the most status outside of school are often placed in a higher math class in middle school.
Yet I rarely see that status being used to place kids into different English classes, science classes, or social studies classes. For some reason math has historically been the subject where we make different assignments based on “ability.” I put ability in quotes because the assignments are often more likely based on perceived ability, prior achievement, and academic disposition than they are on true ability, thus resulting in status groups. Jo Boaler’s research has shown us that there really is not much difference in our students’ mathematical abilities. In all my visits to CPM classrooms I never came across a school that offered truly heterogeneous math classes for middle school students. In the few cases where I have seen schools close to it, it has been amazing to watch all students engage at a high level. Research has shown that our highest performing students do best in heterogeneous classrooms. Yet in school systems there is fear of removing the hierarchy of math courses. The fear comes from the responses of families who feel their students should have access to Algebra in 8th grade as a sign of intelligence, and they feel they are being denied this status marker.
I have seen schools with racially integrated populations look completely segregated in the math classrooms inside the same building. In more than one location I have witnessed middle school math classrooms that are 85% white, right next to middle school math classrooms that are made up of 95% black and brown students. What is the difference in the two classrooms? One is called 7th grade accelerated math while the other is called 7th grade co-taught math (I do not need to tell you which is which) and the status and identities unintentionally assigned to these two different classrooms play out in one set of As and Bs in math and another set of Ds and Fs in math (again, I do not need to tell you which occurs in which classroom). These realities are unacceptable in 2020, especially since research shows us effective alternatives. Educational malpractice is occuring in our middle school math classrooms around this nation. It is traumatic for me to just walk into and witness these realities several times a year, so imagine what it does long term to students who live it daily. This is the achievement gap or, more appropriately named, the opportunity gap, that those of us in education have the power to change. This is systematic racism at work in our schools. This history has played out the same way for too long and the time for change has long passed.
The students in the classes with lower statuses will likely not only have less access to deeper and richer mathematics, but they will likely not identify as mathematicians or choose STEM careers. What budding scientist or engineer has our nation missed out on by our choices to segregate middle school math classes based on “ability”? We know mindset, agency, and identity are critical for success in mathematics, yet we continue this approach, which unintentionally, or maybe at this point, since we know better, intentionally, advantages some while disadvantaging others.
If our actions to segregate students are truly based on parental pushback, then the math community can do a better job of educating parents, students, administrators, teachers, and communities about the rigorous nature of middle school math. I hear from the math community continually that a depth of understanding in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade mathematics standards is more valuable than acceleration through these standards. Still our practices remain focused on acceleration. The math community needs to stand up to the notion that 8th grade algebra is a marker of success. Why can’t we be satisfied with quality, deep, rich, rigorous, differentiated, and heterogeneous 8th grade math classrooms focused on the 8th grade math standards for all children? Acceleration or compaction of standards should be a choice for high school juniors and seniors who are leaning towards careers in math and sciences. We need to stop making these decisions for students in the middle grades or sometimes earlier.
My niece was offered the chance to accelerate in 8th/9th grade. I suggested she stay at grade level and get a strong foundation in algebra as a freshman. She took my advice, even though at times during those early high school years she thought math was too easy and that she had made the wrong choice. As a junior she took a compacted course of Algebra 2 first semester and Precalculus second semester (blocked classes so no content was skipped) and then AP Calculus as a senior. She went on to take Calculus 2 as a freshman in college at UW-Madison, where she is an engineering major, and she received an A. I often wonder if she had chosen the route of middle school math acceleration, whether she would still be looking at engineering as her major. Maybe yes, but a weak foundation may also have discouraged her at some point along her high school math journey. Her experience tells me there is no reason to hurry or fear for the future math options if we fail to accelerate in middle school.
Dangerous, fixed mindsets and deficit language among middle school staff is rampant within the daily conversations I witness. I hear teachers use phrases and terms like: high kids, low kids, those kids, ”regular” class, ELL class, special education class, high class, smart kids, good kids, kids that just don’t care, kids who “can’t,” etc., and I believe the systematic way we divide kids into the regular and accelerated tracks plays into the language I hear from teachers, staff, and students. In return, the teachers feel these tracks are needed because of their fixed mindsets and beliefs about student abilities. It is a vicious cycle that we have a moral obligation to interrupt.
The conversation needs to start now. Deficit language needs to be called out and replaced. Instead of high students we might say “students who we decided to accelerate because they performed well in our biased system.” Maybe that alone will get us thinking about the long term dangers of our choices to track our middle school classrooms. Maybe when we return to schooling in-person we will be ready to show that we value all students by creating on-grade-level heterogeneous classrooms.