Math Teachers Speak Up

A group of West High math teachers recently wrote a letter to the Editor of the Isthmus criticizing the direction of the MMSD’s math program.

sthmus (April 2, 2004)
Dear Editor:
Reporter Vikki Kratz quotes our Madison School District math coordinator, Linda McQuillen, as saying: “We no longer need courses below algebra in high school,” and she attributes this to the “success” of the new feeder programs in the middle schools.
First, let’s set the record straight. The truth is, we are not allowed to offer courses below algebra in the ninth grade. At West High, we were told by the administration that, beginning this year, we could no longer offer our pre-algebra course, a historically successful preliminary course, to the students whose preparation of algebra was inadequate. This came directly out of the school board mandate (ordered without teacher consultation) that every student must pass geometry by the end of 10th grade. This effectively forces all students, ready or not, into algebra in the ninth grade.
At West, to address the problems of inadequate preparation, we offer an extra hour of math per day in a class called Algebra Extended. There are 11 sections of this class. This is how more kids “complete ninth grade math in the ninth grade,” not because of some touted “success” of the feeder programs in middle school.
As a matter of fact, the algebra skills and problem-solving skills of my geometry students have been generally worse every year, and my experience is echoed by many of my colleagues who teach classes beyond geometry. The kids are frustrated and angry as well, feeling, rightfully so, that it’s not their fault.
Moreover, parents of future West High students should take notice: As you read this, our department is under pressure from the administration and the math coordinator’s office to phase out our “accelerated” course offerings beginning next year. Rather than addressing the problems of equity and closing the gap by identifying minority math talent earlier, and fostering minority participation in the accelerated programs, our administration wants to take the cheaper way out by forcing all kids into a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
It seems the administration and our school board have re-defined “success” as merely producing “fewer failures.” Astonishingly, excellence in student achievement is visited by some school district administrators with apathy at best, and with contempt at worst. But, while raising low achievers is a laudable goal, it is woefully short-sighted and, ironically, racist in the most insidious way. Somehow, limiting opportunities for excellence has become the definition of providing equity! Could there be a greater insult to the minority community?
Like all “geeks,” minority “geeks” are under enormous pressure to dumb down for their peer groups. Most smart kids are afraid to look “too smart” in the larger school population, and that is why accelerated course are so important. These kids need a socially safe place to be smart, and a peer group based upon intellect, not just grade level, in order to truly flourish.
Susan Lochen
Madison West High School
(co-signed by other West math teachers: Janice Cis, Keith Knowles, Carol Michalski, Jackie Hubbard, Daniel Boyland, Artie L. Orlik, Stephen Lang, Stephen Land, Tim Goldsworthy)

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