Can We Talk About An Equitable Education System?
Falls Church City Public Schools, (FCCPS), no doubt, like other school districts across the country, are working to respond to the ever present demand for more rigorous standards and the call to meet the needs of “twenty-first century” learning. In addition to the force and promise from technology, is the focus on STEM in our classrooms. Alexa will tell you that children “with a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will go on to play an integral role in our nation’s global competitiveness and economic stability.” Talk education here in Falls Church and the focus is definitely on excellence and rigor and that is never more apparent than when you look at the math course offerings at George Mason High School (GMHS.) GMHS is a small public high school in Northern Virginia that serves just under 900 students.
George Mason High School leadership deserves a lot of credit as they have worked hard to provide a number of options for students. The options include courses at the Arlington Career Center; via Dual Enrollment, a program which allows students to take classes not only for high school credit but for college credit through Northern Virginia Community College; and on-line through Hybrid Learning. In addition to this there are Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses as well as the classes in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program which is the curriculum of choice here in Falls Church.
However as much as all of us praise all these choices and support excellence and rigor, some of us would like to see the drive for excellence also provide for a more equitable education system to be more inclusive of all students in our community as reflected in the program of studies course offerings, not just the 15% of students who face no barriers and so naturally excel and delight in accelerated academic learning as a teen and are headed out the door to pursue studies in STEM careers. In order to do this we need to start a conversation about this.
FCCPS has been operating for a long time to enable students to excel particularly in math and so certainly before grade 6, tests are administered, selections made, and the math tracking begins as can be seen by the math track choices seen at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School (MEHMS). (Program guide page 24) Students as early as 7th grade, are encouraged to take Honors Algebra, providing choices and thus assuring enrollment in those top courses offered at our high school. Tracking however can limit student choices and leave a student feeling like they “aren’t good in math” when it could just be that they are being assessed on content they never had a chance to learn. This contributes to gaps in both opportunity and achievement and even to what is known by many at the Matthew Effect. (Read “Race, Math and The Matthew Effect on page 10 for more detail.)
Parental pressure for an equitable education system in Falls Church is not new. Specifically in math, it was informed and vocal parents who pushed administrators at GMHS for a co-teach algebra class, first available to rising 9th graders for the class of 2013, thus finally fully opening up the math door to students with disabilities. Previous to that, students, primarily with disabilities, were steered towards a three year course, called Algeom, that taught algebra and geometry over three years. However, parents were not told that this course would have their children facing math material in PSATs and SATS to which they had not been exposed. That specific course as named, has since been eliminated.
In the 2014-2015 school year, in response to student need, GMHS offered a Pre-Calculus course that was not at the AP level and that was actually a co-teach class. GMHS administrators should be proud of this ground-breaking offering since Mason had only offered its first co-taught Algebra II class in the fall of 2012. They could be a model for all high schools, not only in Northern Virginia but the entire country, however, this class was eliminated and is no longer offered, let alone as a co-teach class, as you can see from the 2019 – 2020 George Mason High School’s Program Of Studies (page 45). Co-taught courses (not listed as such in the course guide and designed each year based on need) provide students with more support, opening up these classes not only to students with disabilities but provide benefit to students who require extra support thus creating more access and success for all students to the study of math. George Mason High School offers 12 math courses above the Algebra 1 level. Nine of these are either, Honors, AP or IB courses. This gives the Mason students who seek a high school level math class yet do not feel up for the rigors of AP, Honors or IB few choices. If those students seek an advanced diploma, for which 4 math credits are required, but do not wish to take Honors, AP or IB, they currently have zero choices. (**See list at the end of this article.)
Parents are and have been concerned about the math selections. In October of 2017, a parent mentioned this to the school board in public comment (28:50) that her daughter had no math class to take after Algebra II. Just last week, Education Week published an article entitled “Should High Schools Rethink How They Sequence Math Courses?” asserting that math choices for all learners — to serve all students well, not just the students heading off to college for engineering or STEM careers. That article makes reference to a report, The Mathematics of Opportunity by Just Equations, a group that’s trying to get school districts to consider the equity of their math offerings. (The executive summary can be found here.) This group believes that the “costs – both psychic and economic – to individuals and society of not effectively and equitably educating students in math are great.” As a community that focuses on and supports excellence in our education, we would be remiss to not take a closer look at this issue!
A report for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published in 2018, included as one of its key recommendations to “ discontinue the practice of tracking teachers as well as the practice of tracking students into qualitatively different or dead-end course pathways.” (Executive Summary can be found here.) As discussed in the report The Mathematics of Opportunity, “the use of math to sort students can contribute to negative experiences and math anxiety, which detract from the very learning that all students need and deserve” As a community that prides itself on our educational system of excellence, we must make certain that is not happening here in Falls Church. Our high school math offerings should at least give us pause.
Because FCCPS is a K-12 IB system and George Mason is an IB High School, the focus of the high school course offerings are the IB program. Our education dollars first go to staff for those courses that sustain that curriculum. While there is much parent and leadership support for this curriculum, the community would benefit from a board level discussion, with community input, about some of the unintended consequences of that choice, not just on the other 85% who do not fully participate in the diploma program but all our students.
- For one, this level of rigor and this program specifically is a petri dish for stress which can lead to anxiety, depression and the erosion if not destruction of a child’s academic self esteem. It would be a rare family indeed in our community to not be familiar with the behind the scenes emotional toll on our children as they face the day in day out stress of what is now the standard of our high school curriculum. A recent on-line article could have been written about many families here in our community, as many excited college bound students leave Mason burned out and disillusioned about their ability to learn. David Gleason, a clinical psychologist and author writes that students are overwhelmed before they have the capacity to manage stress. Why do we want this for our children?
- There is plenty of evidence for the position that the IB curriculum as a long term choice for our community is not one that, from an economic standpoint, can also support equity in education because funding limits course choices and IB courses will always take precedence.
- Third, the IB rules make little ease of access for students with disabilities because the IB curriculum is international and simply isn’t governed by nor does it answer to our federal laws.
An equitable education program would systemically share resources so at all levels all students would have the opportunity they need to develop the knowledge and basic skills they need in reading, math and writing to become productive members of society. Instead of focusing on the rush to rigor in as early as elementary school, we could focus on ensuring that all our students have the foundational math skills they need, and the math confidence, to access high school math when they get there and not leave so many students feeling that they “just aren’t good in math” because at grade 6 they weren’t in the top math group. The Mathematics of Opportunity report goes on to state that “Mathematics education needs to support students’ transitions to and through college, whether they’re pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines or other promising majors that prepare students for careers in other fields like law, politics, design, and the media. It also needs to be relevant for students who pursue careers directly after high school, without attending college.” It also states that in effect that a pathway that leads to a dead end speaks to the need for a redesign.
In support of equitable education is the view that providing all children an equitable start would actually lead to better economic and social outcomes for graduates, for communities, and for our nation. This inclusiveness, in our high school would be a place to start and might actually better meet the needs of the typical 15 year old developing brain that would like to explore pre-calculus or some other math option but not at that AP level. Broadening the offerings to include more choices that are not AP or Honors might also serve a majority of our teenagers who really need high school to be just high school instead of college. We also would be setting an example for our children by demonstrating our commitment not only to ensuring their academic success but also to protecting their short opportunity to be a developing child in high school, (not a stressed out mini-adult). This would also show them what we do with our privilege — we provide for everyone, and in order to do that we need to be more inclusive.
Math Course Descriptions
**George Mason High School – A Public High School for all students in our community – Math Course Offerings 2019-2020
To earn an Advanced Studies Diploma a GMHS student must complete four credits of mathematics, which must include a class at the Algebra II level or above. For a Standard Diploma, students must complete three credits in mathematics classes, all of which must be at or above the Algebra I level.
Math Offerings that are not Honors, AP or IB Math Courses.
EL Individualized Math Grades: 9-12 This is a course designed for WIDA ELP Level 1 and 2 students to support the development of mathematics and language skills necessary for success in an Algebra course. This course emphasizes language objectives and does not meet the mathematics graduation requirements; students earn elective credit.
3146 Algebra/Geometry, Course I Grades: 9-10 This is the first course of the three year academic sequence. This course is designed for students who benefit from extra support in mathematics for learning and understanding. At the end of this course students will NOT be tested on the Algebra I Standards of Learning.
313007 ALGEBRA I Grades 9-10 – This course is the standard algebra course in the college- bound academic sequence. It is a challenging course which stresses the importance of and synthesis of abstract algebraic concepts as well as the connections between algebra and arithmetic, geometry, and statistics. At the end of this year, students take the Algebra I SOL test.
314307 GEOMETRY Grades 9-12 This course is the standard high school geometry course in the academic sequence required for college bound students. At the end of this year, students take the Geometry SOL test.
313407 ALGEBRA, FUNCTIONS, AND DATA ANALYSIS (AFDA) Grades 11-12 Placement Criteria: Algebra I and 11th grade standing This course is designed as a bridge between Algebra I and Algebra II, for students who have successfully completed Algebra I Part I and II but have struggled in Algebra I and/or Geometry. Successful completion of this course should prepare the student to take Algebra II. Students who have not previously passed the Algebra I SOL will sit for the exam at the end of the course.
313507 ALGEBRA II Grades 9-12 This course is an extension of the Algebra I curriculum covering topics that were first introduced in Algebra I will be built upon and applied to problems that require higher-order thinking skills. At the end of this year, students take the Algebra II SOL test.
Accelerated Math Offerings including Honors, AP and IB Math Courses:
GEOMETRY/ ALGEBRA II HONORS Grades 9-10 Honors Algebra II/Geometry is designed for advanced students who desire a more rigorous course at an accelerated pace. This challenging course includes the Algebra II topics as well as an emphasis on proofs, deductive reasoning, and right triangle trigonometry. At the end of this year, students take the Algebra II SOL test.
ALGEBRA II/TRIGONOMETRY HONORS Grades 9-11 This course is designed for advanced students who desire a more rigorous course at an accelerated pace. At the end of this year, students take the Algebra II SOL test.
316209 PRECALCULUS HONORS Grades 10-12 This course prepares students for IB Mathematics SL, AP Calculus AB/BC and/or IB Mathematics HL. This course follows Honors Algebra II/Trig in the honors sequence. The course provides a solid background for students who plan to take calculus and other higher level math courses.
319655 IB MATHEMATICAL STUDIES SL Grades 11-12 IB Mathematical Studies SL is a standard level mathematics course in the IB Diploma Program.
319855 IB MATHEMATICS: ANALYSIS AND APPROACHES SL I GRADES 11-12 This is the first part of the more rigorous of the standard level IB mathematics courses. At the end of the second year of this course, students will take the IB exam.
317756 IB MATHEMATICS: ANALYSIS AND APPROACHES HL I /AP CALCULUS BC Grades 11-12 This is a fast paced and rigorous mathematics course with emphasis on limits, differential calculus and integral calculus as well as infinite sequences and series, and calculus applied to parametric functions, polar functions, and applications of vectors. At the end of the year, students will take the AP Calculus BC Exam.
317854 IB MATHEMATICS SL II Grades 11-12 This is the second year of the more rigorous of the two standard level IB Mathematics courses. At the end of the year, students will take the IB Mathematics SL exam. Students may also sit for the AP AB Calculus exam if they complete the AB Calculus Hy-C independent study add-on component.
319756 IB MATHEMATICS HL II Grade 12 IB Mathematics HL II is a survey course in mathematics that includes selected topics in vectors, trigonometry, linear algebra, probability, statistics, and other topics in preparation for the IB higher-level examination.
319255 AP STATISTICS Grades 10 – 12 The purpose of the AP course in statistics is to introduce students to the major concepts and tools for collecting, analyzing and drawing conclusions from data. Students who successfully complete the course and exam may receive credit, advanced placement or both for a one- semester introductory college statistics course.