Parents express concern over BPS math and science curriculum

By: Brendan Losinski | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 29, 2018

BIRMINGHAM — A number of parents and students have voiced objections to changes and planned changes in Birmingham Public Schools’ math and science curriculum.

Some of them went to the  Jan. 23 Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education meeting to voice those concerns and share what they believe are the negative ramifications for district students.

The changes include a switch from traditional math classes to an integrated math model that was implemented for eighth- and ninth-graders this year and will be implemented in the rest of the high school over the next two years. The changes also include the elimination of honors math and honors science classes, an alteration that is planned for the 2018-19 school year.

“By all accounts, the implementation of integrated math has been poor,” said Lory Dolan, a mother of three current BPS students and one graduate. “If the district’s proposed plan to eliminate honors (classes) goes through, then next year, honors-capable students — who are a grade level ahead — will be mixed in with grade-level students, creating an even bigger problem. The teachers are struggling with the material now, and next year they will have the additional struggle of students who learn at three different levels. That is unfair for every child: The high learner will be held back; the student who struggles will lose confidence; and the middle students will be stuck between the two competing interests.”  

Integrated math is focused on separating students into small work groups in which the students study and help each other, taking the focus off of traditional lecture-style teaching from an instructor. During the district’s periodic reviews of its academic curriculum, Daniel Nerad, the superintendent, said administrators believe this model will better prepare students for the future. They also believe that successes in other districts suggest it is the best course of action for BPS, he said.

“The recommended change at the high school was to move from a traditional model for math to an integrated model with algebra, geometry and then advanced algebra all woven together, instead of being spread separately across three years,” explained Nerad. “It helps teach math in a more real-world context, because you often have to use different types of math to solve a problem.”

Nerad said integrated math is designed to advance all students at a higher rate and make honors classes unnecessary.

“We’ve seen other districts have success with integrated math,” said Nerad. “It is a more enriched curriculum, with more substantial math rigor. It’s a high-standards curriculum. There is a need for more rigor in American math curriculums. We’re moving away from honors algebra and honors geometry. … There will still be honors pre-calculus in the high schools after that, as well as Advanced Placement calculus courses. We want all students exposed to the more rigorous math program.”

Sheri Brown, who has three students in the district, has listened to the feedback from her own child going through the integrated math program and other students in his class. She expressed what she had heard from them at the Jan. 23 school board meeting.

“The feedback I’m getting is the kids are very frustrated,” Brown said. “They feel that the teachers don’t really teach, and it’s very hard for 14- and 15-year-olds to learn from other 14- and 15-year-olds. They say they don’t get enough time with teachers, and that if one student is doing a problem wrong, they don’t have ways to know if they’re on the right track. Each student learns differently and is different, and while working within these groups, they don’t know if they are learning correctly. You might have two kids at the table who might be good at math and two who aren’t, or one who isn’t paying attention that day, and some students just want those who do understand it to tell them the answer. You have kids feeling that these methods aren’t fair. They feel their grades shouldn’t be based on others’ achievement or lack thereof.”

Brown said the loss of honors classes only exacerbates these issues.

“The cutting of honors classes will make things more difficult, because if you have all collaborative, student-centered learning, in one group there could be four very different levels of learners,” she said. “If you have three students who get a subject and one who is struggling, the person who is struggling may get left behind or won’t ask questions because they’re embarrassed, or those other three may not be learning as fast or effectively as they can. There are educational and social concerns, such as being made fun of because they don’t get something or someone being too embarrassed to ask an older student questions.”

Brown, Dolan and other parents said that the lack of honors classes also could affect students’ college prospects. Advanced Placement courses — college-level courses taken in high school — will remain on the curriculum, but many of the objecting parents said that students won’t be properly prepared for those classes without designated honors courses.

School administrators have said they appreciate these concerns and have expressed interest in more one-on-one meetings to further discuss these issues.

“It is very different, and I think I understand how some students are feeling,” said Nerad. “We have to see how this plays out over time. Any change has difficulties and challenges to adjust to. We will take a couple weeks to look at this engagement process and find some good dates for meetings. We will announce specifics soon.”

Some of the parents said they are pleased that the district listened to their worries, but they said they wonder if this response is moving too slowly to help students who are currently struggling under the new curriculum.

“Our kids are stressed and frustrated now and may be failing now. We need something to happen at a fast pace so our students can be helped now,” said Brown. “It’s great to have dialogue, but I worry how long that will take. A month? A trimester? Next year? What’s most important is they need to listen to the feedback from their students and hear what their students are thinking immediately.”