We are pleased to share the experiences and learnings of a math teacher who has been recognized by his peers as an outstanding educator.

Here is a snapshot of his background… I am an 18 year public school teacher, primarily in high school mathematics, although I did two years in middle school. Most of my teaching has been in Snohomish County schools – 7 years at Kamiak HS in Mukilteo, 6 years in Marysville (2 yrs 7th grade, 4 years HS), and over the last 3 years I have been at Cascade HS in Everett, Monroe HS in Monroe, and Meadowdale HS in Lynnwood. I have taught all levels of HS mathematics, including AP Calculus and AP Statistics, but the class I have taught the most has been PreCalculus, most of it spent as a “College in the High School” teacher, where students can earn college credit through my PreCalculus classes through Everett Community College, as the class is intended to parallel their Math 141/142 courses. When I taught middle school for 2 years, my school (Totem MS in Marysville) earned a School of Distinction award from OSPI for improvement in 7th grade math. Verifiably it was my impact as a teacher that earned that award.

He offers his views on how and why students are failing math…and it’s our fault.

Something has happened to math education in Washington over the last decade. With the best of intentions, no doubt, the State Legislature changed the high school graduation requirements in 2007 to include a third year of math. The relatively thoughtless application of this requirement has had a detrimental effect on math teaching and learning, and has essentially resulted in a fraudulent circumstance surrounding high school graduation.

Prior to 2007, students would have completed their math graduation requirement after a year of Algebra 1 and a year of Geometry. If students wanted to continue with mathematics, it would be as an elective course and they would typically take Algebra 2, then continue on to PreCalculus and Calculus depending on years remaining. These classes were considered as being on the college track.

Following the changes made in the 2007 law, districts were essentially forced to put all students into Algebra 2 to meet the graduation requirements. Whether students had shown real proficiency in Algebra 1 or not, 99% of students were herded into a class that many were completely unprepared for. Algebra 2 is pre-engineering math. There is little in the course content that is independently applicable (as compared with Algebra 1, where an understanding of linear functions has widespread application). The foundational math understanding for success in Algebra 2 is deep and varied. Students need to understand equation solving and order of operations, they need to understand fractions and linear functions, and also the language and symbolism used to describe the math. Not just in passing, but with competency. These prerequisites have not been met, but far worse, the system of accountability through standardized testing has discouraged foundational competency.

The result is that teachers have had to “dumb down” expectations – both breadth and depth of curriculum, and proficiency – in order to accommodate the influx of students ill-prepared for an Algebra 2 class. Furthermore, the prevailing “more math is better” notion espoused by many administrators is pushing those ill-prepared Algebra 2 students into PreCalculus, which often is taught as a parallel to a college PreCalculus class (at UW this was Math 120, at Everett CC it is the Math 141/142 series). “More math is better” is fine when is it achieved responsibly, but when the accountability system is geared towards minimal proficiency the result is widespread damage to math education.

I first experienced this phenomenon when I taught at Marysville’s Arts and Tech HS, 2010-’11 school year. I had 3 sections of Algebra 1, almost all freshmen who had not passed any of the middle school end of year exams for mathematics (more on this later). I also had a section of PreCalculus that I was supposed to teach as a College in the High School class, meaning that students could pay reduced tuition, and with a C or better could get EvCC’s Math 141/142 credit. However there was only one student, maybe two, out of the original class of 24 who were functionally prepared for that level of math, the same math I had taught for five years prior to 2007 at Kamiak HS in Mukilteo, where I had – with no hyperbole – zero unprepared students.

I spoke out about this immediately, first to my building administrator, then to the director of secondary education in Marysville. I told them that it was a fraud to be connected with the CHS program at EvCC if, as a school and district, we could not ensure that our students were adequately prepared – both with skills and motivation – to be successful with college level material. The message was received as a hostile one. When I was transferred to Marysville Getchell HS (where I was math department chair for two of my three years), I had the exact same experience. The majority of my students were wholly unprepared for what was supposed to be a college parallel math class – both in the scope of curriculum, and in the grading expectations. Yet I was expected to pass all or most of the students, because according to the administrators, if the students had passed the state standardized tests in Algebra 1, they should be prepared to pass Algebra 2 (now a state graduation requirement) – most weren’t – and then passing Algebra 2 (even with a D) would open up the Precalculus option. The administration was unwilling to listen to my concerns, or my ideas for restructuring course sequences to better meet the needs of students. The situation was so thoroughly fraudulent that I had a meeting with the head of the EvCC CHS program and the math CHS supervisor and flat out told them that I couldn’t in good conscience continue to keep quiet, and I asked them to audit the program.

Then I voluntarily quit Marysville, because I figured that it was just a problem there. What I discovered over the last four years, and over 3 subsequent school districts (Everett, Monroe, Edmonds) is that the Algebra 2/PreCalculus problem is manifesting everywhere. Even my former colleagues at Kamiak said that the 2007 graduation requirement law has impacted them too.

The graduation requirement change is not the only problem. Another aspect is that the state standardized test in Algebra does not identify Algebra proficiency meaningfully. A Level 3 “proficient” score indicates a bare minimal proficiency. A Level 4 “distinguished” score is a better indicator of Algebra 2 preparedness, but by and large that’s only 10% of students. However, because most administrators have no personal academic connection to mathematics instruction, the general administrative interpretation is that anyone who “passes” the state exam in Algebra (my reference is prior to SBAC, but the notion translates) should be prepared for Algebra 2, which is a fallacy.

The other problem is that there is no way to remediate students once they get to high school. If they have not been prepared for Algebra through their middle school experience there is no PreAlgebra option to attempt to prepare them, because PreAlgebra is not a creditable high school math course. My first year at Marysville Getchell, well over 50% of my Algebra 1 students had not passed a single MSP exam through their 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years. Most of those were at a Level 1 proficiency. Those students were not prepared for Algebra, yet they were all forced to take it. I was pulled off Algebra 1 detail after the 2011-12 year because I failed too many students. Understand that this was not due to my teaching – I have had my students accepted to Harvard and MIT for math, and Totem MS in Marysville has a School of Distinction award from OPSI for 7th grade math improvement, which verifiably was due to my students’ test performance – this was due to a fundamental lack of preparation, compounded by the graduation requirements, the state testing, and the lack of a remediation option for freshmen. Further compounded by administrators whose only concern is graduation rates, not learning. I was told by the math department chair at Meadowdale in Edmonds last year “D is for Done.” In other words, pass them regardless.

As secondary math teachers in public schools, we are forced to manipulate both content and proficiency expectations to accommodate a systemic failure. I have encountered it everywhere I have taught since the graduation law was changed. The impact is definitely being felt at the college level. Most teachers will comply because they fear being in the position I am now in. As a known “whistleblower” I am virtually unemployable. I do not have a contract this year, though I have applied for numerous positions that I am expertly qualified for, because past administrators have noted my resistance to the fraud by way of higher than average fail rates, and than I do not “collaborate” well, which is the current edu-euphemism for shutting up and doing what I’m told.

At this point, I do have the ear of SPI Chris Reykdal and he will be meeting with the 38th LD Democrats in Everett on October 25th to both hear and address the concerns I am raising. The bottom line is that graduation rates are being inflated over math education. The graduation requirement should go back to two years. Teachers should be able to grade their students honestly and make appropriate recommendations for further math education with a variety of classes, instead of the majority being pushed into Algebra 2. College in the High School classes should be just that. PreAlgebra should be a creditable HS math class.

People should tell the truth.

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