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It's Time to Give a Hoot about Math Tracking

· Academic,Math

At Owl Education Group, we're on a mission to disrupt the system. Are we anarchists? Certainly not! We're math enthusiasts, and we're determined to create a community of young math enthusiasts who perform to their true potential. Here's what we've encountered: Many students who are capable of mastering high level math shy away from pursuit because math tracking has convinced them that they are not equipped for advanced math; these students are often locked out of the gate to eighth-grade algebra and may develop an aversion to math. Owl Education Group aims to end the self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps capable math masters from recognizing their potential and embracing challenge.

What Is Math Tracking?

Math tracking is a practice that divides students into math classes based on prior performance, which includes test scores, grades, and teacher recommendations. Generally, math tracking begins in the sixth grade; by eighth grade, most students have been pigeonholed as "math-minded" or "math-impaired." As such, students follow a prescribed path of math courses until high school graduation. For example, students on the accelerated track are often placed in algebra in eighth grade and then have four years to advance through calculus, should they be so inclined. Students on lower tracks, however, may not encounter algebra until high school, and the course can span two years. Such students may no longer have the gumption to tackle more than the typical three years of math required for high school graduation. They may not reach Algebra II, the level of math most colleges now require for admission. We at Owl Education Group believe that the criteria used to track students does not necessarily reflect students' aptitude and does not take into account the quality and appropriateness of math instruction students received.

Math Isn't Just for Mathematicians

Math is a language that reveals universal truths. To uncover these truths is empowering. How to get students pumped up to discover their math potential requires a shift in how math is traditionally taught. Dr. Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, frowns upon math pedagogy that presents students "short, closed questions" that they either answer correctly or incorrectly. In a recent TED Talk, Professor Boaler contends that such questions "transmit fixed messages" to students: "You can do it, or you can't." The truth, according to cognitive research, is that all of us are capable of learning any level of math. Professor Boaler asserts that the widely accepted notion that a person either has or doesn't have a "math brain" is simply a myth. At Owl Education Group, we're eager to debunk that myth. As a language, math can be decoded, and it's the decoding process that builds problem-solving and critical thinking skills. As math enthusiasts, we want students to be wise to their potential, and we believe that all students are entitled to the opportunity to learn and advance in accordance with their true potential.

Math Tracking Can Affect Students' Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy

Being relegated to a low math track and dismissed as not having the brains for math can deflate students' confidence. It's understandable that these students may resign themselves to not being "math-minded." When these students see their efforts to learn and advance as futile, self-efficacy--the belief that one's actions are connected to outcomes--can plummet. Students may wonder what's the point in trying if their brains are not wired for math or all they do is make mistakes. To fire up students' self-esteem and self-efficacy, changes need to be made to the system: Let's do away with math tracking; let's revolutionize the tired pedagogy that approaches math as a mystifying abstraction; and let's stop shaming mistakes. Consider, please, that brain science has proven that our brains grow when we make mistakes in math. Mistakes are learning opportunities, not signs of incompetence. A primary goal of education is to increase self-esteem and self-efficacy. It's high time to rally behind Professor Boaler's call to equip students with "growth mindsets" and to impress upon them that they can "learn anything."

Recourses Available to Parents

We encourage parents to engage with teachers and administrators and discuss how schools make math placement decisions. Here are some tips:

  • Is there a flowchart of typical progression? Examine it. Establish which path your student is on and where that path generally leads.

  • Think ahead: If Jenny aspires to work in the STEM field, check the admission requirements at potential colleges and make sure that she is, in fact, on the right track.

  • Question the math curricula and the delivery mode(s): Is content especially rigorous or watered down? Is the material presented in a way that meets your child's learning needs?

  • How is competency measured?

  • Is your child showing mastery of material on tests?

  • Is lack of homework management (completing/submitting) hurting your child's grades and thus influencing placement? (If so, consider executive function evaluation and coaching.)

  • If you believe that extenuating circumstances negatively impacted your child's placement, present a case and lobby the administration for a higher track.

  • Consider summer programming to boost placement.

Parental awareness and involvement help ensure that math placement is truly in line with a student's potential.

The Owl Education Group's Approach

As math enthusiasts, we bring vibrancy and visualization to math education. We engage students through Socratic dialogue, inviting them to participate in the learning process and to redefine esoteric math concepts into their own language. Self-expression and imagination are encouraged to humanize math and to build intuition. We guide students to make connections between abstract symbols and formulas and the real world, bringing math down to earth. Through metacognitive reflection, Owl Ed students come to understand how they learn and can articulate their individual needs. We strive to teach to each student's learning profile. We applaud students' quirks and boost confidence because we believe that learners should not be tied to a track; with growth mindsets, Owl Ed students can achieve and often exceed expectations, proving to themselves that everyone has a mind for math.

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