Howard County's math failure [Commentary]

I've taught math at Oakland Mills High School in Howard County for seven years. In that time, I've read hundreds of articles about the problems in American math education. But I've yet to see a mention of the single biggest crisis I face in my classroom.

Howard County has a policy of placing every ninth grade student into at least Algebra I — even if the student is currently doing math at a fourth grade level. As a direct result of this policy, students enter my classroom lacking essential prerequisite knowledge.

My supervisors have suggestions. "Let's do some strategic gap-filling. Let's plan lessons using the principle of universal design for learning. Let's incorporate daily differentiation strategies to provide rigor for a diverse group of students while maintaining a support network for those students who have disabilities or gaps in their prior knowledge..."

This is nonsense. There is no buzz word that makes two and two equal five. I cannot teach algebra to students who lack pre-algebra and arithmetic.

Across the region, math classes have been flooded with students who are preposterously misplaced. My colleagues and I are faced with an awful choice each day, a choice between maintaining the integrity of the curriculum and meeting the needs of our students.

People who understand math usually argue for the former course of action. Teach a legitimate Algebra I class, they say, and if three fourths of your students fail, then so be it. I certainly see their logic. But most teachers are never going to do that.

We became teachers because we want to help young people learn. We will never steamroll through the curriculum, leaving students to follow or not as they may, because we care about those students. When teachers are forced to choose between standards and students, the standards will lose.

The tragedy is that students also lose in the end. Telling students that they are preparing for college when they're really taking a series of watered down courses is a cruel and costly lie.

There is, of course, a simple solution to this problem. We must place each student into a course for which he or she is prepared. If high school students need instruction in pre-algebra or arithmetic, then they should receive instruction in pre-algebra or arithmetic.

Good people will object to this, and for good reasons. They worry that students who are members of disadvantaged groups will be more likely to end up in lower math courses and that students who are placed into lower courses will not have as bright a future. They worry that placing each student into a course for which he or she is prepared will cause inequality.

It will not. The inequality already exists. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Suppose we give incoming ninth graders a test to determine which math class they should take.

If we as a society had achieved justice and equality for all, then I would expect the group of students who do well on the test and the group of students who do poorly to look about the same. As is, because of injustice and inequality in our society, I would expect a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic students to do poorly on the test. Thus, a humble math test becomes a yardstick by which we can measure inequality in our community.

If we're willing to devote our careers to pushing against that inequality, then we need just such a yardstick to measure our progress.

Of course, we might prefer to take the easy road, sweeping injustice under the carpet and creating a facade of equality. We might want to put every student in the same impressive sounding, college prep courses, and we might not want to be told that some of them aren't prepared for those courses. In that case, we would hate the test, because it would expose the lie. We'd make bizarre accusations — that a math test is racist, that a teacher is biased for putting a red line through a wrong answer — rather than admit the simple fact that a student is unprepared for the course we want him to take.

Placing students into the correct math class is a prerequisite for real progress. Identifying students who are behind grade level and putting them into intensive, effective remedial classes is the only way to help those students realize their potential.

Michael Hensley teaches math at Oakland Mills High School in Howard County. His email is

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