Thursday, July 10, 2008

How to screw up with data

A recent principal had no idea of how math worked or should be taught, she just knew that our "scores weren't good enough." She bounced into an end-of-year faculty meeting with the graph at right (taken from a State publication). Essentially, she said, "The math teachers aren't pushing our kids enough. We can improve our scores by pushing the kids into more rigorous courses. I've talked with Guidance and we're scheduling next year's freshmen. We're 'STEPPING them up! Students who were recommended for pre-algebra will be in intro-algebra instead. Intro-Algebra is now pushed into College prep algebra. Those in intro-algebra this year can move into algebra II if they pass. Our scores will rise because this graph shows that students in more rigorous classes do better on the exam."

Wow. The graph shows the NEAP math scores attained by tenth-graders, sorted according to the math course they were taking. The idea our fearless leader was pushing was that artificially placing the kids up a course would raise their scores.

My comment that we should push them all the way into pre-calculus and do even better was not appreciated. All of us math teachers began trying to explain that it was rather natural that 10th graders in pre-calculus would do better than 10th graders in pre-algebra. We were told to "Get with the program." "Why are you obstructing progress?" "This chart is from the State DOE. It's based on real data." "We need to raise our scores."

The plan happened. Over the summer, the principal took the lists of freshmen and made placements based on a 1.5 year-old test instead of teacher recommendations. She put them into classes of 20 and decreed that these classes would stay together all day for all of their courses. Imagine that: 20 kids are well-placed together for math, science, English, history, and PE.

The eighth grade teachers were furious because they had done a lot of work placing these kids, holding meetings to best group them, examining tests across the board, and so on. They had done a typically bang-up job. ( We HS teachers were rarely surprised by an out-of-place student. Year after year, we knew what we were getting and the kids knew they were going into classes they were ready for. The parents knew the placements were good -- this was a small town and everyone had an older sibling who had Mrs. W., etc.) The MS teachers told the kids their classes for next year, everything was A-ok.

The kids showed up at HS in August and found they were STEPped. Lines of students formed at guidance trying to change schedules. They were all refused. Parents were told of the new plan, which mollified them somewhat. They thought their kids were really going to do better.

What really happened was that one math teacher had all of the freshmen classes and had lowered the expectations across the board. Hand in homework and be nice were the two primary criteria for passing. College prep algebra was reduced to the level of an introductory algebra; intro algebra had some algebra in it but not much. The school-wide algebra tests and exams were used but the scoring was wildly curved. (Sort of like the NY regents: 30 out of 95 was a typical passing score.) Grades went "up". Parents were happy.

Then these kids moved into 10th grade. Almost all of them did poorly. Their new teachers were accused of making the classes too difficult and of not teaching properly. We were told that maybe we should change to block scheduling (what?) or perhaps an integrated math program. We were told to "individualize your classes. Take each child from wherever she or he is and help them make improvement. We are not standardized here." It didn't matter if the kid didn't really know much algebra 1 because his next teacher was supposed to start where he was and build.

There were kids in Geometry who had never dealt with square roots except by punching a calculator. Algebra II kids who didn't know how to factor. Algebra I kids who couldn't reduce a simple fraction. We'd had all these problems before, of course, but never in these numbers.

Kids and parents were also not happy. "I had an A last year, now I'm getting a D" was the most common complaint. A few admitted that "Mr. C. didn't teach us much." "We never did 'graphing lines' or word problems. We went outside and calculated the slope of a mountain we were walking up. Actually, T. held up a protractor and we all used that number. We wrote about it in our journals." Notice that slope was 22 degrees, not (y2-y1)/(x2-x1). This was totally new to most. Not like the usual "Oh, I remember" but more of a "Huh? We never did that."

What data was used to see if the program worked? "The freshmen's grades this year were higher than last year's so it must be a good change. Their grades went down as sophomores so the other math teachers did a bad job."

Don't you just love education? Where else can a perfect storm of incompetence screw up so many kids?

Just to wrap up, a look at the cast of characters:

The principal who thought that all students could have finished Geometry by the end of the ninth grade and that 50% of the students could therefore take calculus as seniors. The principal who couldn't average 100 and 92 without a calculator.

The freshmen math teacher who is the head of the union and had been installed as department chair by that principal because he agreed with her. He's not allowed to teach Geometry, Pre-Calculus, or Calculus because the State says he doesn't have the credentials or ability. We didn't even like him teaching Algebra II because he did such a terrible job. Kids with math talent hated getting placed in his class.

The curriculum coordinator (a math phobe) who quit to become a principal at another school. This man felt that all kids can succeed in any course if the teacher individualizes the class. Apparently, when you put a "B" in algebra on a transcript, colleges magically know that you individualized the class at a basic math level.

The guidance counselor who had to quit because she needed to renew her credentials, which required that she pass the Praxis I math test. She couldn't. (You know the one: Which of the following is equal to a quarter of a million? (A) 40,000 (B) 250,000 (C) 2,500,000 (D) 1/4, 000, 000 (E) 4/1, 000, 000 ). The other two guidance counselors also left for better jobs where they didn't have to defend decisions they didn't make or agree with.

The other 5 math teachers: 3 quit, listing politics and bad administration as reasons. They're teaching at nearby schools. The remaining two stayed for other reasons, but were "this close" to quitting anyway.

How about that?


  1. A variation on a theme.

    I go with the state, for releasing data that was poorly understood, but that created expectations of some kind of ill-defined improvement.

    You just wrote this? What timing.

  2. On closer look, I can't blame the state. The principal probably got this through High Schools on the Move, pushed by our State DOE, but this is from The Education Trust.

    Title: Improving Achievement in High Schools and Beyond.ppt by Kati Haycock.

    I did just write this but the story comes from two years ago. I am one of the math teachers who moved on to another school ... same length of commute, fewer students, $5000 raise. Go figure.

    It's too bad, really. I liked those kids and at least 50% of the faculty. I would probably still be there if the politics and policies weren't so pervasive and counter-productive.

  3. Same thing is happening in the school I teach in.