PA Coalition for World Class Math

   Everyday Math out; 8th grade algebra in at Rye Middle School (Greenwich, CT) (1/30/2012 )

Bob Horton: Key to college success 8th-grade algebra?

 Monday, January 30, 2012

It is a shocking statistic: Barely half of the 2004 Greenwich High School graduates who went on to college received their degrees, according to a report requested by the state Board of Regents of Higher Education released in late December.

That places Greenwich 41st among Connecticut public high schools -- not a place we should be comfortable given all this town can offer students.

Of course, everyone wants to know why the graduation rate is only 53 percent, and more important, what can be done to significantly improve that percentage. Fortunately, there is an easily understood and widely accepted leading indicator for college graduation: successful completion of algebra by the eighth grade.

Earlier this month, the school board started its annual review of the town's math program. According to the initial report from math administrators, 55 percent of eighth-grade students completed either Algebra 1 or Honors Geometry in 2010-11, the fifth year of incremental improvement. So as shocked as everyone was by the college completion rate, our eighth-grade algebra number predicted just such an outcome.

The report heralded the town's incremental improvement over the last five years, but should we really be happy with that? To me, more than 1,000 eighth-graders have been ill-served by our middle schools over the last five years.

Greenwich administrators tell us that even incremental change takes years; they are right, but only partially so. Change does take time, but the degree of change does not have to be incremental.

To see how dramatic, wholesale change can be achieved, the Board of Education should take a field trip to Rye Middle School, where an educator from Greenwich is achieving what in the business world would be described as a Big Hairy Goal: 100 percent of eighth-graders taking Algebra 1.

Making every eighth-grader take Algebra 1 would be simple: Just throw them all into Algebra 1 and let the X's and Y's fall where they may. But remember: Passing Algebra 1, not just taking it, is the indicator of college success.

"Schools that don't plan run into trouble," explained Rye Middle School Principal Ann Edwards. "We've been planning this for several years. We told this year's seventh-graders when they were in fourth grade that they all would be taking algebra in the eighth grade."

When those students started fifth grade, they were the first Rye students to use a new math curriculum based on the widely praised Singapore approach to math. Called Expressions, the curriculum replaced Everyday Math, the same curriculum used today in Greenwich.

"I'm not a math person, I'm an English person," Mrs. Edwards said. "But many years ago I used to tutor Greenwich kids in math. Everyday Math has too many sections and moves way too fast for the students to achieve true mastery. It puts a higher emphasis on memorization than mastery."

Rye Middle School sixth-graders who fall behind attend two extra classes each week with the same teacher who instructs their regular classes.

"We take two classes from their elective schedule. And we tell the elective teachers to put those students on pass/fail to remove some of the pressure from missing classes," the principal added. "Importantly, we get very little pushback from parents.

Now in its third year, the Rye program has had some beneficial if unexpected side effects. One math teacher has created a peer-counseling program in which she trains students to help other students. "It created a real sense of community," Mrs. Edwards said. "The sharing room is filled after school and I had to assign an extra teacher to help supervise."

The 100% Algebra solution has its critics, mostly parents of honor students who are not happy that the school is dropping eighth-grade honors math.

"I don't have an answer for those parents yet, but I'm working on it," Mrs. Edwards said. One answer may lie in the peer-counseling program. What parent would not want their child to develop the teaching and leadership skills required to help their friends through challenging curriculum?

To help teachers, Mrs. Edwards is leading an after-school study group that is reading "Teach Like a Champion," a book that provides "excellent strategies for being a better teacher. The staff is very enthusiastic," she said. And Rye Middle School is not only focused on enriching the math program. It has introduced Mandarin Chinese, and demand for that course has grown so much that another teacher has been hired.

Implementing any educational change requires buy-in from parents and administrators.

"I've been here for 14 years, and the superintendent has been here for 16 years. He's been very supportive of the change," Mrs. Edwards said.

Imagine tha: a superintendent staying around for more than a couple of years.

As I was listening to Mrs. Edwards, I could not help thinking about Greenwich's search for a new superintendent. I never mentioned it to her, but the school board would do well to speak to her about the job. She has many years experience as an administrator, and for those who think local connections are important, she has lived here for years and her kids graduated from Greenwich schools. Sure, she's never been a superintendent, but that cannot be the only criteria we consider.

Bob Horton can be reached at