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D90 Ditches Accelerated Math in Elementary

Few of you could have seen the announcement. The email to parents/caregivers of 3rd graders-only is another example of the district burying an important and foretelling piece of the current boards ‘new instructional philosophy’ for River Forest. Imagine this at a time when River Forest residents are just realizing the Board’s plans for revamping public education in River Forest. Remember the Board sets priorities, the Superintendent is the only employee of the Board, and the Superintendent is responsible for executing priorities through the Administration.


This note went out only to parents/caregivers of 3rd graders yesterday (2/4/19) to signal the end of pull out math in Elementary. It also (very indirectly) substantiates the “walking away from differentiated instruction” in D90. The email cites research and ‘best practices’ suggesting math rigor for accelerated students is bad? Rigor is when the challenge is greater than the current skill level – this is how learning happens regardless of current skill. Accelerated learning is delivering rigor to students found on the upper end of the distribution of learners. A district’s ability to serve the middle and either end of the distribution is driven by Board priorities and of course resources. Without any mention of delivering rigor to either end in the email, and with unanswered questions to administrators, I’m left with uncertainties about the middle, but its delivering rigor to either end that I’m most concerned about.


When I asked the board at a community meeting in December what happens when a student masters a math concept, the answer was they help their peers learn and in doing so receive a leadership lesson. Who will be teaching who math, how often, and how does this reflect a commitment to increasing math achievement in D90? Why is a second attempt to introduce block scheduling at Roosevelt in 20 years based on increasing math minutes, especially if we're not going to deliver rigor to all learners in elementary? Math is sequential, like building blocks and needs a strong foundation. By the way, recent PARCC test results showed over 24% of our 3rd graders were exceeding expectations in math – five out of five on the achievement scale. Only 1.4% scored at the bottom of the scale. Also, the curriculum director reported to the Board that CogAT was proven ineffective in identifying children at the upper end of the distribution.


I’m a scientist by training and math, especially statistics, was part of my BS, MS and PhD training. People tend to put a lot of weight on data and mathematical results. It can build confidence and sway opinion, but anyone with a higher education in science will tell you data and results are nothing without context, knowledge of alternate hypotheses and alternate methods to assess data. You can find existing research, or a slick way of portraying your own data to say just about anything you want. It’s called confirmation bias – when you only acknowledge support for your pre-existing belief.


So while we’re just hearing a lot from D90 about how it’s better to mix ability levels into one class and how acceleration can be harmful, I wanted to share a synopsis of an article from Review of Education Research looking at 100 years of research into the topic - Steenbergen-Hu et al. 2016. Matt Heffner, another non-incumbent D90 Candidate, shared this after meeting with experts researching the same area at Purdue University. I’ll leave you with study’s conclusion immediately below, a link to the full article beneath that and a question - is the Board’s new instructional philosophy what the evidence says is best for D90…or are we seeing confirmation bias?


Overarching conclusion of Steenbergen-Hu et al.

Stanley (2000, p. 221) said that education should “avoid trying to teach students what they already know.” Based on the nearly century’s worth of research findings presented here, we believe that the data clearly suggest that ability grouping and acceleration are two such strategies for achieving this goal. The current findings will not settle all controversies on the philosophy of education. Nevertheless, we believe that they help clarify the academic effects of ability grouping and acceleration. Regardless, the conversation needs to evolve beyond whether such interventions can ever work. There is not an absence of evidence, nor is there evidence of absence of benefit. The preponderance of existing evidence accumulated over the past century suggests that academic acceleration and most forms of ability grouping like cross-grade subject grouping and special grouping for gifted students can greatly improve K–12 students’ academic achievement.


Full Citation

Steenbergen-Hu, Saiyaing, Makel, Matthew C. & Olszewski-Kubilius, Paula. 2016. What One Hundred Years of Research Says About the Effects of Ability Grouping and Acceleration on K–12 Students’ Academic Achievement: Findings of Two Second-Order Meta-Analyses. Review of Educational Research, December 2016, Vol. 86, No. 4, pp. 849–899.


Full Paper



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