Lions and Tigers and Math SOL scores – Oh My!!!

Word on the street is that PWCS’s pass rates on the revised and “more rigorous” Math SOL are abysmal, and hysteria has broken out across the county.  OK, hysteria might be a bit of an exaggeration because most of us are already in a summer vacation frame of mind and getting all hot and bothered when it’s 90 degrees out at 8:30 in the morning is impossible, but there has been a massive outbreak of vigorous finger pointing and hand wringing.

Told ya so.  Just saying.        Told.      Ya.      So.

We, or I to be more accurate, typically take a break from posting articles to the blog in the summer.  The snark and sarcasm factor tends to increase exponentially as the school year comes to a close, and we, or I more specifically, haven’t wanted to subject you to that.

Plus, my blog, my rules.

But I decided divert from that policy to actually put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, to comment on this mass outbreak of finger pointing and hand wringing over the “holy cow they’re low” pass rates for the Math SOL exam.  So here goes, but be forewarned, it’s my summer vacation and the snark is running freely.

Anyway, are our pass rates lower for the Math SOL this year?  Read the rest of this entry »



When I founded this blog I promised myself that I would do my best not to spread unsubstantiated rumors and that I’d research issues before publishing them so as to not stir pots with incorrect information.  Please forgive me as I take a step back from that commitment with this next article.

As some of you are aware, the school division recently adopted new math textbooks, which are supposed to be used in division classrooms starting this Fall (2012).   The school board approved McGraw Hill’s Math Connects for kindergarten through grade 8, which is the reason for this article.

Rumor has it that the division is considering a phased implementation of Math Connects rather than implementing the textbooks in all grade levels in the Fall.  The rumored justification for the phased implementation is cost.  Word on the street is the school division simply does not have sufficient funds available to purchase 40,000 + new math textbooks in one year. Our BOCS has not approved the school division’s budget, yet, and might be interested to know that the budget just might not have enough money available for our children to be given state approved textbooks, even with the state kicking in a chunk of the cost of those textbooks.

Here’s the second part of the rumor.

Central office staff are apparently considering phasing-in Math Connects by implementing it in Grades 6 – 8 and K – 1 in the Fall, with grades 2 & 3 following in the Fall of 2013 and grades 4 & 5 in the Fall of 2014.

Assuming this is true, that’s a very bad decision, in my opinion.

The value of using a K – 8 series is the consistency between elementary and middle school because the 6th grade textbook picks up where the 5th grade textbook ended.  That doesn’t happen right now, and, as a result, our middle school teachers are having to teach concepts and procedures to our children that they should have learned in elementary school.

The phasing the school division is considering would keep those gaps in place until the Fall of 2015 when the first grade of Math Connects students hit middle school.

Math Investigations, the instructional program PWCS is currently following in elementary school, was not submitted to the VA DOE for review and has not been evaluated for content alignment with the 2009 VA SOLS.  As such, it is not recommended by the VA DOE for use in VA elementary schools.  The phasing the division is reportedly considering means that students currently in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades will be using math textbooks that have not been evaluated for content alignment with the current VA SOLs and are not recommended by the VA DOE.  These students will continue to use non-SOL aligned, non-state approved textbooks until they reach middle school.

One note.  The division did phase-in Math Investigations.  During the phase-in students continued to use the old SFAW textbooks.  The difference between then and now is that the old SFAW books had been reviewed by the VA DOE for content alignment with the VA SOLs and were recommended for use in Virginia schools.  So no PWCS student ever used a textbook that was not recommended by the VA DOE, at least not until they started using Math Investigations in 5th grade as Math Investigations was never recommended by the VA DOE for use in 5th grade, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

In this instance, the division appears to be considering allowing students to be taught with materials that are not recommended by the VA DOE and have not been evaluated against the VA SOLs. And they’ll be using those non-state approved, non-SOL aligned textbooks in SOL test years.

Did I mention that I thought the suggested phasing-in was poorly thought through?

In my opinion, if we have to phase in the new textbooks then we should do it in reverse order.  If we can afford a 2 year phase-in, then do grades 3 – 8 in the Fall of 2012 with kindergarten – 2nd grade following in the Fall of 2013.  That way the gaps between ES & MS can begin to be addressed and our children will be using textbooks that have been evaluated against the VA SOLs and are recommended by the VA DOE in their SOL test years.

If we have to do a 3 year phase-in then do grades 4 – 8 in the Fall of 2012, with 2nd and 3rd grades following in the Fall of 2013, and kindergarten and 1st grade going last in the Fall of 2014.  We’ll be able to begin addressing the gaps between ES & MS and, with the exception of our third graders, most of our children will be using textbooks that have been evaluated against the VA SOLs and are recommended by the VA DOE in their SOL test years.

There are two other fairly significant reasons for inverting the phase-in and starting with the upper grades, assuming a phase-in is required.

  • Math Investigations adequately met about half of the 2001 math SOLs for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, per the VA DOE evaluations.  That means that our current instructional program is heavily supplemented with materials from other sources. The 2009 SOLs, against which Math Investigations has not been evaluated, are more rigorous than the 2001 SOLs, per the VA DOE’s statements.   Math Connects adequately meets all of the more rigorous 2009 VA SOLs for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades (it also adequately meets the more rigorous 2009 SOLs for kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades).
  • There are content and procedural gaps between Math Investigations and Math Connects, and those gaps build every year.  The gaps don’t become significant until students move from 3rd to 4th grades.   Transitioning from a Math Investigations based 2nd grade program to a Math Connects based 3rd grade program will be a lot easier than transitioning from a Math Investigations based 5th grade program to a Math Connects based 6th grade program.

If we have to phase-in the new textbooks, we ought to consider starting with the upper grades.

Dereliction of Duty By PWC School Board

“It’s just a ‘bell schedule change,’ that’s all so there’s no need to involve the school board.” That’s how PWCS central administrators charged with overseeing academic programs described the leap into universal Block Scheduling throughout PWCS Middle Schools.

Just a “bell schedule change?” Hardly.

As we found out last Wednesday night at the PWCS Board meeting, yet another sweeping change in our school system is underway… and the PWCS Board is once again asleep at the wheel. The Superintendent’s staff is busily implementing yet another innovative program – without a written formal plan to outline goals and objectives, strategies for attaining objectives, procedures for evaluating effectiveness, and costs – that affects tens of thousands of students and their families. Yet the PWCS Board didn’t even know this was going on. So they scrambled to put the topic on the agenda ostensibly to find out just what major changes are afoot in PWCS middle schools…only to find that there is no coherent formal plan behind the major shift in academic instruction in our schools.

Read the rest of this entry »

PWCS Stonewalls Answering Block Scheduling Questions

Several weeks ago we posted an article asking questions of PWCS officials regarding their plan to implement block scheduling in county Middle Schools (see here). At the June 2nd school board meeting PWCS MS officials were asked to answer questions from school board members regarding the change.

School board members – it is not sufficient just to ask the questions.  You must also pay attention to the answers and challenge district officials to clarify when they fail provide direct answers or meander off topic.

Block scheduling will be implemented in four, maybe three, more Middle Schools next year.  The three “for sure” schools are Pennington, Lake Ridge, and Grand Park.  Marsteller is the 4th school, though block scheduling at that school appears to be undetermined.  According to district officials, the community appears to support block scheduling because “only 6 parents” complained.

As is pretty much expected now, the confusing and contradictory responses provided by PWCS officials and MS Administrators leave us with more questions than answers and a general impression that officials in our county are either unwilling or incapable of planning and evaluating programs they implement with empirical metrics.

Read the rest of this entry »

Math in PWC Middle Schools

Our fight to bring rigor back to the PWC Mathematics program has focused on TERC’s Math Investigations in Elementary Schools. Unfortunately, the battleground has expanded.

We have it on good authority that PWCS will likely move to recommend Connected Mathematics (CMP) as the primary text in Middle Schools during the next textbook adoption process, which won’t begin for another year. CMP is MI’s MS equivalent, and the evidence that it provides little academic value to students is vast and growing.

We suspect, but have not been able to confirm, that CMP will make an appearance as a primary text in selected MS math classes this Fall. The district is pushing CMP on teachers, has reportedly obtained and distributed “free” copies of CMP’s instructors guides for every PWC MS math teacher, and openly lists CMP as the leading or secondary instructional resource in the Curriculum Framework for many standards.

What can we do?

(1) Ask the Principal directly if CMP will be used in your children’s math classrooms and to what capacity, and let us know what you hear back. As a parent you have a right to know what materials will be used to teach your child and to oppose the use of those materials if you believe they aren’t adequate. None of us would hesitate to make our feelings known if the district began teaching our kids how to put condoms on cucumbers, why should we be silent if the district is considering a math program we think is unacceptable?

(2) Begin working on your school board member. We’ve got a long time before the next math textbook adoption process begins (about a year), but we need to be prepared and we need to educate them.

(3) Consider running for school board from your district.

It takes 5 votes to approve a recommendation by the district – which means we need 4 to ensure that CMP doesn’t get approved. Whether the district is able to get 5 votes or note depends largely on when the vote is taken. If the vote is with the current board the we suspect Johns, Trenum, and Bell will be opposed to CMP with Lattin, Richardson, and Ramirez in favor. That leaves Otaigbe and Covington on the fence. If the vote is taken after a new board is seated, well then what textbooks and instructional materials each candidate supports will play a major role in whether they get elected. The more candidates we have who oppose fuzzy math, the more likely we are to get rid of it once and for all in PWC.

Block Scheduling Coming to Marsteller

Block Scheduling is Coming to Marsteller Middle School

We’ve received a number of emails recently relating to a change in scheduling at Marsteller Middle School, and, based on these emails, parents and teachers are not happy.

Currently Marsteller students follow a daily schedule of classes in Math, English, Science, History / Social Studies and an every other day (or block) schedule for Gym, Music, and other electives. That means that Marsteller students spend one hour each day in Math, English, Science, and History / Social Studies, and 1 1/2 hours in either Gym or Music (or another elective).

Next year the school will be changing Science and History / Social Studies to follow a block schedule and allocating additional time to Math and English. That means that Marsteller students will spend 1 1/4 hours each day in Math and English, 1 1/2 hours in either Science or History / Social Studies, and 1 1/2 hours in either Gym or Music (or another elective). The school’s justification for this change is that it will place greater emphasis on the topics which are used to gauge AYP.

A number of questions / concerns are raised by this move.

(1) Marsteller does not and has not had any difficulty reaching its AYP targets. In fact, Marstellers test scores are among the highest in the district. Why change a program that is clearly working?

(2) Marsteller is currently a Math / Science hub. Will the school be able to remain a Math / Science hub if students are getting 25% less science instruction?

(3) Reducing instructional time for certain topics means that teachers may be forced to teach classes they aren’t certified to teach. For instance, a teacher certified to teach History / Social Studies and English may have to teach a MS math class. With studies showing that over 50% of our MS Math teachers aren’t qualified to teach MS math, how will the district ensure the teachers who teach our children are qualified to teach the subjects they teach?

(4) The is no actual evidence that block scheduling is effective at improving student learning. None. There is, however, plenty of evidence that block scheduling doesn’t work (see Block Scheduling in Texas High Schools and The Case Against Block Scheduling).

(5) Numerous studies have demonstrated that people, especially teenagers, learn best in 50 – 60 minute increments – that students taught in 60 minute classes had greater retention and knowledge of the topic than students taught in 75 or 90 minute classes. Knowing that, why would we establish schedules that exceed to 60 minute golden period?

The district has demonstrated time and time again that it likes to follow every educational fad that comes along, no matter how much evidence there is that those fads don’t work. Math Investigations and block scheduling are the latest fads our district has bought into.

The problem is that these fads actually hurt our children because the fads deprive our kids of the education they deserve. The old adage if it ain’t broke don’t fix it still applies. The instructional program at Marsteller is doing quite well. Block scheduling undermines student learning. Why change the program at Marsteller if there is no reason to change and implementing that change might actually cause harm?