- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

To improve its students' mathematics skills, Montgomery County, Md., schools must stop segregating poor students, use a consistent curriculum, align it with state tests and help teachers teach it better, according to three studies released yesterday.

The recommendations follow revelations this spring that almost half of Montgomery County high school students taking geometry and two-thirds of all high school students taking Algebra I failed the countywide first-semester exams. In both exams, the failure rates were at least two times higher for black and Hispanic students.

School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast asked for the studies, which include a $100,000 audit in his "call to action" to increase student achievement and decrease the "opportunity" gap between white students and their Hispanic and black counterparts.

"[We] didn't learn anything new," he said yesterday. "We knew the kids weren't learning. The difference is, we are going to do something about it. We just needed a road map."

He said the blame for poor achievement is not going to be placed on children or teachers. Instead, the school system is going to try to "nurture" its way to success in mathematics by galvanizing the school system and the community to work together.

In June, auditors visited 27 schools and interviewed more than 100 students, teachers and principals, finding that once students were "sorted by ability and put in lower level classes, weaker teachers and lower expectations caused stagnancy in those students' results. This grouping by ability often begins in elementary school and is exacerbated in middle school," auditors said.

The majority of students placed in the lower-achieving classes are black or Hispanic and are often from poor families.

"The resources are not allocated with need," said William Poston, an auditor from Phi Delta Kappa International, who performed the study. "If one of your children has appendicitis, you allocate more resources to that child. Here, the allocation has been made on head count, not need."

The audit and two other studies analyzed middle-school mathematics and the role of teacher background and preparation in students' algebra success. Studies found that teacher certification, years of teaching experience and the number of classes students attend were irrelevant to student success.

Instead, the studies showed that poor achievement resulted from inconsistent application of the curriculum across the county, and that what was taught was not necessarily what was tested.

The studies recommend refocusing teaching on the curriculum, aligning curriculum with material on state standardized tests, monitoring results more often and increasing teacher training.

Mr. Weast said he will follow through with increasing staff development, creating curriculum guides for teachers and monitoring results. He added that action already has begun.

"We started a lot of that last year," he said. "We created a team and an office of shared accountability and have allocated $26 million to target concentrations of poverty."

Teachers applauded the report.

"The bottom line is that these reports are highly challenging to the school system in a good way," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. "Frankly, it just says what teachers have been saying for years."

School board members promised that the findings would not gather dust, and that the board would create the policies supportive of increasing math achievement.

"We have the guideposts now and need to implement them immediately," said Patricia O'Neill, school board president.

Others urged caution. "At least they don't want to blame the principals and teachers anymore without giving us some help," said one principal who asked not to be named. "But I will believe it when I see it."

The bottom line, said Mr. Weast, is that children are going to learn no matter what race they are, what socioeconomic background they come from or what school they attend.

"Every one of these kids here is going to be employed," said Mr. Weast. "They are going to apply their education to earn a living so their families will break the cycle of poverty. That is what I want for my four children and I know that is what you want for yours."

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