Middletown Parents Double Down on Opposition to Math Curriculum Changes


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MIDDLETOWN — Parents told the Board of Education on Tuesday they were tired of being told they were “confused” about the district’s proposed changes to middle and high school mathematics. 

Instead, they said, they simply opposed it. 

“The following concerns that we have are not due to a lack of understanding of the proposed changes or fear of innovation, but rather a fundamental disagreement in the direction of the proposed math performance,” Daniel Long, a parent and research scientist at the UConn Neag School of Education, told the board. 

Long was one of a half-dozen parents who expressed doubts about the proposed changes, which would transform the current Algebra I and Geometry courses into an Integrated Algebra I course for ninth-graders and an Integrated Geometry course for 10th-graders, incorporating elements of Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. 

According to Stacey McCann, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, the goal is to ensure every student has the opportunity to take an advanced math course.  

“This proposal, if accepted, will increase students’ ability to continue along a trajectory of advanced math courses,” she said. 

Under the current pathway, McCann said, the only way a student could take AP Calculus in high school would be to take Algebra I in eighth grade. Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos said that while it was possible for high schoolers to take two math classes at the same time, they would have to give up another course to do so. 

Instead, the new proposal would let students take Algebra I in eighth, ninth or 10th grade, offering new opportunities for those who didn’t take Algebra I in eighth grade to still reach AP Calculus before graduating. 

The research

The district told CT Examiner in an email that the program was based on work by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and by Hanover Research, a research and analytics firm that produced a report in 2015 evaluating evidence for integrated math curriculums as a way of increasing student math proficiency, The district also worked with Jennifer Michalek, a K-12 math education consultant for the state Department of Education, on the proposal. 

The Hanover Research report cites a move toward the integrated model in large California school districts.

In 2021, California unveiled the hotly-debated California Mathematics Framework, based primarily on a model authored by Stanford University mathematics education professor Jo Boaler.

Boaler advocates for an instructional model that teaches data science, and restructures the calculus pathway so that it no longer requires students to begin a calculus track before reaching high school.

Boaler argues that placing children on a track at a young age pushes students out of higher-level mathematics and leads to “racial and social inequities.”

But critics of the framework say it politicizes mathematics and would reduce accelerated options for gifted students. 

Long told the school board he wanted the district to pause the program’s implementation in Middletown, arguing it had not achieved the desired results when it was adopted in the San Francisco Unified School District, and that it had lowered math scores for Black and Latino students. 

In an email to CT Examiner, Long cited a 2023 working paper by Brown University that found San Francisco’s decision to have all students take Algebra I in ninth grade initially caused a decrease in enrollment in AP Calculus and did not substantially affect the racial disparities in advanced math courses. 

Long suggested that before the district approved the curriculum change, it should find evidence that the program worked in other districts. He proposed the district begin with a pilot program in one class in the Middletown district, and that they open an alternative pathway consisting of traditional Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. 

Long also said he wanted the district to offer a Pre-Algebra an option for sixth- and seventh-graders, making it possible for more students to take Algebra I in eighth grade. 

College acceptance concerns 

Parent Jesse Torgerson said he was concerned the “integrated” classes proposed were actually a compression of three years of math — Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II — into two years. 

“Colleges would not accept those compressed years as meeting the three years of advanced math requirement for high schools,” Torgerson warned. “So doing any form of this plan that compresses what’s traditionally three years advanced math into two will be problematic for the college readiness.” 

Parent Andrea McCarty also said she felt the idea of compressing three years of mathematics into two was a bad idea.

When asked about the difference between the two, McCann said it could be a question of “semantics.” 

“That could be subject to interpretation. There’s research around the integrated approach, and compression was the word that was used tonight … could be semantics. No, I can’t speak to ‘compression.’ That has never been on our docket,” McCann said. 

Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos added that the intention was not to “take away” from the math that was already part of the district. 

“There’s this narrative that we’re taking away. No. We’re actually trying to create rigorous pathways that are going to help students excel,” he said. 

Torgerson also criticized the data science course, which the board adopted last May, saying a more appropriate name for it would be a “data literacy” course. He noted he was not aware of any public college in Connecticut that accepted data science as an advanced math course. 

McCann said the district had not yet spoken with universities, but that they intended to do so as part of gathering community feedback. She also said data science was not considered equivalent to Algebra II, which UConn requires, and that the district would need to make students aware of that. 

“We want to make sure we’re being transparent with the students that are taking those classes, that they have everything they need to get to the next level,” she said. “That’s why we do have counselors in school.” 

Other parents also expressed concerns about whether their students would be prepared for college. Justine Quijada, who transferred her daughter to Beman Middle School from a magnet school in Hartford, said one of the factors she considered was whether the district would offer Algebra I in eighth grade. 

Quijada, a professor of religion at Wesleyan University, said she works with incoming freshmen and understands the value of taking AP Calculus for college. 

“I can tell you that AP Calculus is not an advanced program for special advanced learners. It’s a basic prerequisite for every intro science class,” she said. 

Quijada said not offering Algebra I in eighth grade would mean students would start college at a disadvantage.

“They’re going to be a year behind all of their classmates when they get to college, who are taking Intro to Bio and Intro to Chemistry in their freshman year. It’s virtually impossible to do pre-med if you’re not doing your intro classes in your first year,” she said. 

Erika Franklin Fowler, a political science professor at Wesleyan who said she works with computational and applied data science, said while data science was a good way to draw students into more math, high schoolers should still take the “traditional” path of study. 

“As a professor who directs cutting-edge data science, I want to underscore that our students are better off with more math. … They’re better off with fundamental calculus, algebra,” Franklin Fowler said. “I do not understand why the district is rearranging its curriculum at the high school rather than utilizing existing and tested methods of curriculum for acceleration in middle school that would allow students to have exposure to STEM and art — both of which are essential for data science — instead of two math classes at the same time.” 

Intentional engagement

Board member DeLita Rose-Daniels asked the district to consider other options.

“It would be a disservice to our students if this is the only idea, and there’s so much contention, and somehow this idea doesn’t make it to the final phase,” she said.

Vazquez-Matos underscored that the district had not yet brought anything before the Board of Education for approval, and that the new curriculum was still in the conceptual phase.

“I have not yet seen the details of what is being proposed, in the sense of other than titles. The nitty gritty I have yet to even see, to even approve for it to move forward,” he told the board.

The district said in a statement that it would be “intentionally engaging with teachers, families and community members to ensure all voices are heard and common ground is established.” 

According to a timeline provided by the district, there will be a community meeting about the Integrated Algebra curriculum in October and another about the Integrated Geometry curriculum in December, with presentations to the Board of Education in January. 

Parent Kelly Torgerson, who attended the Tuesday meeting, told CT Examiner on Wednesday that she was still waiting for the district to “directly address our questions and critiques.” 

Long told CT Examiner he was encouraged that Board of Education members had begun asking questions, but said he felt the district should scrap the math pathways proposal altogether. 

“I think it’s largely a waste of time to spend any more time on the math pathways, because the evidence seems to be quite clear that it has not been effective and has actually hurt a number of the students that it is aimed to help,” he said. “We should be spending our time on other efforts to improve education for all students – both high-achieving and students at the median, and then students that are struggling.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this story has been corrected to reflect that Daniel Long is not a professor at UConn but rather a research scientist.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.