Schools announce curriculum changes on last day of class

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 3:04am
Theo Wellington, the parent of two Metro students Parker (left) fifth-grade and Nathan (right) seventh-grade, says she’s disappointed that the school system has decided to stop offering classes for advanced students. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

Pat McCauley doesn’t want to “buy” her son math classes that are in advance of where other kids in his grade level are placed. But if she has to, she says, she will enroll her son in private schools.

“[Math is] his thing,” McCauley said. “Discriminating against brighter children is going to cause a wholesale exit [from public schools]. … It’s not treating students as individuals. It’s treating them as a lump group.”

McCauley and many other Metro Nashville Public School system parents learned last week that advanced courses in mathematics and language arts will no longer be offered to middle school students in the format parents are used to.

Instead of having the option to enroll in advanced courses next year, all students in grades five through seven — and possibly eighth-grade as well — will receive differentiated instruction in regular courses. Separate classes will not be offered. That means kids of a broader range of abilities will be in the same classrooms, accessing instructional materials appropriate for their skill levels.

The change was recommended by the Tennessee Department of Education, which is playing an increasing role in decisions made throughout the district — particularly in the area of curriculum.

Connie Smith, accountability head for the state DOE, said Friday that the state has found a “lack of rigor” in curriculum for grades five through eight. Students were placed on “tracks” based on their ability levels that were difficult to move out of, she said.

Standards for all levels of students will be raised this coming school year, Smith said, and teachers will learn how to most effectively provide differentiated instruction this summer through professional development. Similar structures are in place in districts in Hamilton and Knox counties, as well as in Memphis.

“This is a move to raise expectations of Metro schools,” Smith said. “We know this will work. … It’s appropriate for urban, rural and suburban systems. … It’s working in schools with similar situations, similar demographics.”

The change is not intended to neglect any needs of gifted kids. Smith said the district is currently in the midst of a “reorganization” of how high-performing students will be educated. A timeline for that process is still in development, she said.

Metro middle school classrooms district-wide will look similar to what is currently in place at MNPS academic magnet schools.

“The magnet schools have a curriculum that is working. They’re already using differentiated instruction,” Smith said.

Olivia Brown, public relations coordinator for MNPS, said last week that students will be assessed for their current ability levels, then instructed using appropriate texts and differentiated learning approaches.

“Our goal is for the students to achieve the highest possible levels, and of course, [for the district] to get out of corrective action,” Brown said.

Differentiated instruction courses will give the district an advance on meeting statewide standards that are being ramped up for the 2009-2010 school year, Smith said.

Plans for the changes, as promising as they may sound, caused consternation among parents last week. Some parents have been aware, since earlier this spring, of the changes affecting middle school algebra course offerings. But many say they learned about differentiated education in language arts and mathematics classes for the first time on the last day of school, when a letter was sent home.

The letter, addressed to MNPS parents and guardians, is signed by district Teaching and Learning chief Sandra Tinnon. It discusses “leveled texts,” “21st century mathematics,” “elevated expectations” and “quartile performance.” It does not exactly spell out the change in course offerings, and a number of parents told The City Paper that they would not have understood the changes from the letter alone — instead, they are relying on information from other parents and from individual school staffs.

McCauley says that, as the parent of a student entering the fifth-grade next year, she received no formal notification. She first learned of the change through Children First!, a weekly communication from the district that parents and Nashville community members can opt to receive.

Another parent, Theo Wellington, said she has talked to other parents who are angry that they were notified of the change so late in the year. It’s past time for parents to apply to private schools, Wellington said.

“I’m really disappointed. I really view it as a breach of contract,” Wellington said. “As one of the top students, … how long are you going to keep up your high achievement if all you get is grief from it from your fellow students? … This is just going to tick off a lot more people.”

Filed under: City News
By: Houston on 12/31/69 at 6:00

MNPS stopped caring about the middle class some time ago. Probably this is due to NCLB, which caused the district to focus on weaker students, letting the bright ones fend for themselves. As a result, the middle class have begun to abandon MNPS. Right now it is almost impossible to sell a home in Davidson County to an upper-middle class family with children. Karl Dean, are you going to do something about this?

By: adf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

When I was an MNPS student, we had pre-algebra in 7th grade and algebra in 8th grade. I'm not sure when algebra started being offered in the 7th grade, but this change is motivated by the latest research on how kids learn math best. While a 7th grader may be able to get through an algebra class, kids will actually learn it better when a year older, and will master geometry better when in high school than in 8th grade. Some parents used to pride themselves on how precocious their kids were b/c they could get through kindergarten at age 4, but that turned out not to be the wisest thing for the kids. Earlier doesn't always mean smarter, higher achieving, or better. Before people jump to the conclusion that this is "dumbing down," it's good to look at what is actually happening. This is part of a larger plan that will actually make math instruction more rigorous in Metro.

By: howelln on 12/31/69 at 6:00

At the magnet schools, they have already developed a diagnostic test that will predict how well a student will do in algebra and only those who do very well on this are put in Algebra I in 7th grade. And they are ususally the ones who win city and state competitions in math in Algebra I in 7th grade, Geometry in eighth grade, Algebra II in 9th grade and so on. It is not for everyone, but why deny the ones who are ready? Shouldn't our gifted students be a part of the larger plan? or are we just going to let them leave for private schools?

By: matahari on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I think this system will help. You will always have very bright kids and not so bright, but they are in the minority. The majority of the kids are in the middle, and they just might be motivated to try harder when they see the bright kids and what they are learning. Children learn by watching and copying. If all the bright ones are in one class and the not so bright are in a different one, the not so bright kids won't have anyone but themselves to watch and copy.

By: Dragon on 12/31/69 at 6:00

You are hurting the kids. You essentially hold students back a year in math, making AP Math irrelevant. So, you can't earn college math credits in high school (which saves significant college money).You will save on high school math teachers. They won't need to teach advanced math. There is a qualification the schools won't need to pay for.

By: Dragon on 12/31/69 at 6:00

"Children learn by watching and copying."So, who's that person standing and yakking in from of the class?

By: howelln on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I do not know this as a fact, but I have heard that this plan will adversely affect the IB pragram in math because they will not be able to do the higherlevel work that is required. Does anyone out there who is more familiar with the requirements of IB know?

By: adf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Interesting info at the pithinthewind blog: like there may be some confusion about what changes are actually happening. Hopefully MNPS can provide a clear explanation sometime soon.

By: Funditto on 12/31/69 at 6:00

How will this effect ACT scores? That's the bottome line, isn't it? Strong math skills are essential for success and are cumulative. Doesn't matter what year so and so learns what, as long as they do get it and retain it. IMO.

By: matahari on 12/31/69 at 6:00

The letter on the Scene's website doesn't say anything about AP classes not being offered in High School. It doesn't seem like a one-size-fits-all proposal on the surface, we'll just have to wait and see what is actually in store. Dragon, of course the teacher is there to teach, but kids don't exist in a learning vacuum, only attending to what (and from whom) we want them to learn. They learn from their peers as well, and if you take all the bright ones out then the highest common denominator in the class is mediocre. It only goes down from there.

By: Dragon on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Teachers can not afford to leave a portion of the students behind, especially in math since it is largely sequential. Teachers tend to teach to the lowest common denominator, not the highest.My point on the AP classes was that math is sequential and each class needs prerequisites for the last math taught. If algebra is delayed for all students, then all students start their four years of math with algebra I. Previously, many students could begin with Algebra II and, by their senior year, be ready for college level mathematics.

By: adf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

We apparently don't know what the exact changes are in store, but presumably if Algebra I is not available in 7th grade, then it would still be available in 8th grade. Years ago, that's what MNPS offered. I was able to take Algebra I in 8th grade and start with Geometry in 9th grade, Algebra II in 10th, trigonometry in 11th, and AP calculus as a senior. So even if Algebra I is only available in middle school to 8th graders, it shouldn't impact the availability of AP math classes.

By: matahari on 12/31/69 at 6:00

The changes proposed (what we can surmise from the skimpy information) aren't that all students will learn the same things at the same time, but that they will advance at their pace. So a student that grasps the concepts more quickly than another student will receive further instruction rather than waiting until everyone else is at the same level.

By: ChickenMan on 12/31/69 at 6:00

matahari, I'm confused. Which is it? "learn the same things at the same time" or "receive further instruction rather than waiting until everyone else is at the same level"? Does that mean that if you figure it out faster than the rest of the class, you keep doing the same thing until everyone catches up?