Be Careful How You Imitate

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle and a forty-year veteran math teacher.

We are a culture of copycats. If a new offensive scheme works in the National Football League, one year later ten other teams are using it with wildly varying degrees of success. When ridiculously low-slung pants became fashionable, too many folks with the entirely wrong physical silhouette grabbed a pair. Madonna gave us Lady Gaga who lead to Molly Cyrus. No further explanation is necessary.

A tale of two double-blocks

Such blind imitation in math education can be equally perilous.

Mel Riddile recently sent me two articles discussing the success and failure of double-block math programs. The first told of research which demonstrated the profoundly positive effects of having ninth graders utilize two periods for the study of Algebra 1. This is, of course, no surprise to me since I have written a book documenting a decade of improved student academic performance based on the utilization of that course.

The second post was considerably more disturbing. It chronicled a school district’s implementation of a double-block sixth grade math program. The thrust of the article was that such a plan was a waste of a student’s valuable class time.

“Doubling up on math classes for a year may help middle school students in the short term, but the benefits of doing so depreciate over time—and are likely not worth the price of missing out on instruction in other subjects, according to a new study published by Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.

“At the end of the year, students with double math scored substantially higher than their peers who took just one math class. However, a year after returning to the traditional schedule with one math class, those gains were about half as large. Two years into a regular schedule, that difference was down to about one-third of the original gain.

“And when those students reached high school, the gains all but diminished completely.”

The problem with this program (and the Stanford analysis) is that it is predicated on the notion that a single inoculation of a double-block course can fix all of a student’s difficulties in mathematics. If only it were that simple.

Some problems require long-term fixes

The mistake inherent in this sixth-grade approach is not in the formulation of the double-block class. As demonstrated by the Stanford research, the problem was in the subsequent classes. These previously low performing students were demonstrating significant gains for one year and moderately good improvement for two. But after three years back in the regular program these gains had been lost. Such a regression should not have been surprising. And sadly, it was avoidable.

A one-year double-block “Band-Aid” can be highly effective for some students but definitely not for all. Successful math achievement for at-risk students requires constant monitoring and adjustments.

Our program consisted of far more than a single ninth-grade course. It was based on careful study of statistics and teacher input. As a result of those factors a portion of the double-block Algebra 1 students did move comfortably into regular Geometry and Algebra 2 classes. However, many did not. For those individuals more time was required and a double-block Algebra 2 class was created. Several years of data collection clearly indicated the wisdom of this adjustment. In an interesting twist, a two-year Geometry program was determined to be of little value and was quickly eliminated.

The bottom line in such a discussion is this: the development of a math program requires careful consideration of adjustments at all levels. An isolated year of remediation is often inadequate for many students.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.