I've had a couple of conversations this past week where it's become apparent that there is a "disconnect" between what we're doing in Math at MUS and what parents think we are doing or should be doing. This blog entry, after consultation with Mrs. Nancy Gates (department chair) and many of my other math colleagues is an attempt to make sure everyone understands what's going on.
First of all, our standard Mathematics program at MUS is an accelerated "honors" program when compared to most American schools. This is critically important to understand. Over 50% of the MUS senior class takes an Advanced Placement (AP) math class their senior year. Let me repeat... over 50% of our senior class takes an Advanced Placement (AP) math class their senior year. That's an amazing statistic when you think about it. Our average math student at MUS, not just our top students, will be doing college-level mathematics work in their senior year of high school. And before you think the others will be counting on their fingers and toes, most of the others will take a semester of calculus and a semester of statistics, both of which will be valuable during their college years and beyond. What do you have to do to make sure your 8th grade son who just finished Algebra will take AB Calculus his senior year? Nothing other than make sure he continues to do reasonably well in math his next three years.
OK, so what about Accelerated math courses? Who takes them and why should they take them? "accelerated" is probably a misnomer -- these classes, leading up to taking AP Calculus BC or beyond by senior year, would better be described by the word "honors" or "advanced" than "accelerated". "Accelerated" makes it sound like the same subject matter delivered at a faster pace -- in our increasingly fast-paced society, who wouldn't want "accelerated"? It sounds especially appealing to those students who are not performing well in math because they claim to be bored (whether they're actually bored or making a convenient excuse merits a whole blog entry of its own). However, these accelerated/advanced classes are really much more -- they cover more material in more depth than the regular courses and require demonstrably greater aptitude and motivation to succeed in them. I've taught regular and Accelerated Geometry and I'll tell you personally that Accelerated Geometry is MUCH more difficult.
How much more difficult? Let me share the experiences of a few of my regular Algebra students who have made the jump to Accelerated Geometry. You might ask why I share only a few; that's because there are only a few. Of the approximately 75 Algebra students I taught from 2001-2005, three of them made the jump to Accelerated Geometry, and Mr. Tyler's had about the same ratio; it's not a common thing. Each year a small number of talented and hardworking students have 95+ yearlong averages in regular Algebra; any student will tell you that a 95+ average in any MUS class is an achievement worth celebrating. That is the pool of students for whom Accelerated Geometry makes the most sense. Most of those elite students choose to stay with the challenge of Regular Geometry because they know it's not easy to succeed even in regular Algebra. Some take the placement test and stay in Regular Geometry after understanding their prospects for success in Accelerated Geometry. Finally, a few do well enough on the test to encourage them to go ahead and take on the new challenge.
It's admittedly a small sample, but those top Regular Algebra students who go on to Accelerated Geometry must work VERY hard to get a B in the course, and many (even with hard work), end up with C's. And don't think it's because they're at a deficit because they weren't in 8th grade Accelerated Algebra -- some of those students struggle equally hard and fail to get a grade above a C. It's just that the challenge of a high school Accelerated/Advanced course is not for everyone -- since it requires both hard work and high aptitude, it weeds out students who are smart but don't work hard as well as those with great work habits but average aptitude. When you think about it, it's not that surprising; many kids who excel on their 8th grade athletic teams find themselves on the bench when 9th grade comes because the competition is tougher and the standards are higher.
OK, so why would one choose to do Accelerated Math? The best reason is to pursue a challenge that brings out the best on those students and encourages them to reach their potential. For a student who is not capable of the challenge, it not only doesn't help them reach their potential, it usually discourages them. I've seen it before when a parent's aspirations for their son's performance in math exceeds his capability; the boy feels trapped and the results are not good. I had a boy (from 8th grade Accelerated Algebra) who had gone on to my Accelerated Geometry class a couple of years ago. On the first and easiest test of the year, he got an F. He also got F's on most of our first few quizzes. It's not that he wasn't working -- he was; he just couldn't perform at the level expected of accelerated students. He came to see me for help, and I gently suggested that maybe he might be more comfortable in Regular Algebra. He burst into tears. His father really wanted him in Accelerated Geometry. I met with both the son and the parent and explained it would be best to move him back to Regular Geometry. They fought me and I agreed to wait until ther results of our second test. After another F, we moved him back to Regular Geometry. Fast forwarding a couple of months later, I passed the boy in the hall... smiling. He greeted me cheerfully, shook my hand, and thanked me for moving him back to Regular Geometry -- he was doing his usual conscientious work and getting A's instead of F's.
That situation beings up an important point: placement in Accelerated mathematics is provisional, not permanent. If the math department decides that it's not in a student's interest to continue in an Accelerated course, we'll move him back to the course that's more appropriate for him. Likewise, if a student seems capable of Accelerated mathematics, we'll schedule a meeting with you and your son to encourage you to strongly consider that move.
Accelerated math is not bootcamp -- a place for an unmotivated student to find motivation. The courses are exciting and they do motivate those who are ready for the challenge. But, for students not ready for accelerated math, it will do nothing but extinguish their flickering affection for math. I would be surprised if a parent asked if a struggling Latin 1 student could take Latin 3 the next year (skipping Latin 2) because the greater challenge would serve to motivate the boy. That is effectively the equivalent what we would be doing if we promoted average-performing regular students to accelerated math -- putting them in an unfair situation where their prospects for success are negligible.
Another reason why some students want to be in Accelerated math is for the benefits that it can have on a student's transcript and its effect on future college admissions. Students in accelerated math classes earn an extra quality point that helps their class rank, and the "accelerated" label has positive impact with colleges. What I recommend to my students is that they need to be 95% confident that they will get 80 or better in accelerated math to make it worth their while from a transcript/class rank perspective (Dr. Baer's opinions may differ). Quality points and labels attached to C's, D's, and F's don't do anyone any good. Sadly, I've seen a few students go down that road, so I know of what I speak. Some of those students continue on despite the grades, while others prefer to return to regular Geometry for the A's to which they are generally accustomed.
Another concern is that if my son isn't in Accelerated math that he is closing doors to a class of elite schools. I just don't believe that's the case. I'm not in college guidance, but about half of our admits to Harvard over the past five years have been Accelerated math students and the other half has not. I would imagine it is the same for most other highly selective schools. Math is an important part of your son's transcript, but not its entirety. If Accelerated math requires such dedication and commitment that he must forego AP classes in Science, English, and History, he could come out behind in the transcript game, not ahead. And, as you may remember from earlier in this lengthy entry, our regular students in AP Calculus AB their senior year get the same quality point as the accelerated students taking the more difficult Calculus BC.
OK, so what about those 8th grade parents whose sons didn't perform as well as they'd hoped at the beginning of the year? What would I recommend for them? The best thing for those boys is to take regular Geometry, but to challenge themselves by setting ambitious performance goals. It will take excellent discipline and effort for a student to achieve an average in Regular Geometry of 95+ -- that goal should present a challenge for even the most talented of these previously underachieving students. If a boy can demonstrate that kind of work ethic and aptitude as evidenced by those grades, then it is possible for them to make the jump the following year into Accelerated Algebra 2. I have one former student who did just that. He works very hard, sees me occasionally for extra help, and he's getting a B in Accelerated math; more importantly he's enjoying the challenge that comes from being in a class that is the right match for his skills and abilities.
The bottom line is that we all have the same interest at heart -- MUS wants every boy to be challenged in mathematics and for him to do the best work he's capable of. We see a lot of boys, so we really do have some insight into what your son is capable of at a given point in time. That can change, and that's why we don't just have one entry point into accelerated mathematics -- some are ready in 7th grade, others in 8th, 9th, or 10th grades, and some are always best served by being in our standard, already accelerated, track.
I just wanted to let you know that we are working together with you to place your son in the best math class for him -- we're not trying to place obstacles in you and your son's way. I can tell you that Mrs. Gates and I would love to see as many boys in accelerated math as possible; we love it that next year we will be teaching three classes of Accelerated Geometry (1 eighth grade, 2 ninth grade), the most we have ever taught in one year. If we had more students capable of doing the work, we'd add a fourth. But we're also aware that not every boy can perform at that level, especially given the other academic and extra-curricular obligations they have.
Thanks for your patience in reading this, and I hope I have exposed some misconceptions and given you a different perspective on Accelerated math. I'd like to thank those parents who have contacted me by e-mail or through the blog with questions on this subject for inspiring me to write this.
If you have more questions, send them along, and we'll have a follow-up post which answers them.