If there is one question I answer more than any other when I am introducing prospective families to RCLS, it is this:
Does RCLS offer accelerated classes?
Usually, the question is followed by explanation. “My son/daughter is in the gifted and talented program”, or “My son/daughter is taking an accelerated math class,” or “My son/daughter qualified to double-accelerate in math.”
It is no surprise that in Med City, USA, there are many students capable of accelerating (or double accelerating) in math. Furthermore, it is no surprise that the parents of these students––many of them researchers, scientists, medical practitioners, engineers––see math (and STEM, in general) as a priority.
So, then, does RCLS offer accelerated math courses?
The simple answer is yes. RCLS has an accelerated math track that begins as early as 4th or 5th grade and formally in middle school. That track lands students in Honors Algebra 1 in 8th grade––a class that earns students their first honors credit for high school.
But, like all things, the more complete answer is not entirely so simple. Why should a student accelerate in math? Why is there such a demand for accelerated math? What are the goals of the RCLS math curriculum? How is the RCLS math program distinct from others? To accelerate or double accelerate? That is the most frequently asked question.
To get the complete answer, then, I sat down with Christin Frey, RCLS 1st-grade teacher, Corey Nelson, RCLS accelerated math and tech teacher, and David Atwood, RCTC math instructor and recent RCLS alumni parent. Given the math expertise (and emphasis, in some cases) of these educators, their answers may surprise you.
What are the goals of the RCLS math curriculum?
Mr. Nelson lists three underlying goals of RCLS’s Preschool-Grade 8 math curriculum.
1. Build a solid foundation of mathematical skills that will enable students to excel in their next stage of learning.
2. Develop a deep understanding of number sense.
3. Instill confidence in students with regard to math and a willingness to persist until understanding is achieved.
How does RCLS achieve these goals?
As for other subjects, RCLS’s philosophy on teaching and learning math is to be traditional in approach but individual in application. In the foundational years (K-5), this is accomplished through the use of the Bridges Math program. Bridges declares itself to be a “comprehensive” program that is “rigorous, coherent, engaging, and accessible,” an assessment Mrs. Frey affirms for the program she uses in her class every day. Her first graders love math, she says, and she marvels at how understanding develops over the course of the year. “Before we even get to practicing math facts,” she says, “my students have memorized what 3+4 is conceptually.” They’ve seen a number sentence such as this in so many concrete ways––with manipulatives or in pictures––that they have developed the “sense” behind an addition sentence without even realizing it, she explains. And because students learn different approaches to numerical concepts, the emphasis is on the concept rather than a single way of getting to the right answer. The conceptual understanding students gain through practice and exploration serves as the foundation they need to move on to higher levels of math, even as these students are also practicing math traditionally such as in memorizing "math facts."
In middle school, students can choose to stay the course with grade-level math, or they can choose to accelerate. Mr. Nelson emphasizes that the priority in both grade-level and accelerated math is not to race through more content, but, instead, to develop depth of understanding. RCLS’s curriculum always meets or exceeds state-level standards, so staying at grade-level will mean most students are poised to excel in Algebra 1 in high school. Accelerated students, on the other hand, do 7th-grade math in 6th grade, 8th-grade math in 7th, and then Honors Algebra 1 in 8th grade. Depending on the interest and ability of a particular class of 8th graders, Mr. Nelson often works to get students started in Geometry before 8th-grade graduation, too. This means the motivated student could finish Geometry via independent study before his/her freshman year of high school and then “test for credit” before the school year starts. Each year, one or two RCLS students do that, thereby "double accelerating."
What is the benefit of acceleration in math?
Mr. Nelson and Mr. Atwood (RCTC math instructor) agree that for some, the benefit of accelerating in math might be the opportunity to get college math requirements completed in high school. For others, acceleration allows them the opportunity to take the most rigorous high school sequence, something that will matter for students hoping to attend the most competitive colleges.
But both these middle school and college math instructors agree that there can be academic consequences for pushing students through the standard math curriculum too quickly. In his experience, Mr. Nelson says there is such a “narrow band of students” that actually benefits from aggressive acceleration. While there may be academic benefits in "single acceleration," he is skeptical that it is really helping most students to “double accelerate.” In most cases, double accelerating in math is not the answer to “getting students where they want to be," he contends. And, certainly, staying at grade level or single accelerating “will not prevent students from getting where they want to be by the time they are in college," he adds.
Instead, Mr. Nelson seeks to build deep understanding and confidence in middle-school math. It is regular, thorough practice with pre-algebra and algebra concepts that will most benefit students academically––in high school and beyond––rather than an opportunity to double accelerate, at least for most students.
Mr. Atwood agrees. “I have seen students who complete their math courses too quickly and then choose to not take math their Senior (or Junior) year,” he says. “The students then forget the material that they learned and end up having to complete ‘unnecessary’ math courses to catch up and complete their college math requirements.”
So, then, why the apparent demand for double acceleration?
Mr. Nelson observes that “math is the only subject where there is a clear, sequential set of skills and courses.” In consequence, he speculates, this is the subject that is targeted for acceleration. “Somewhere along the line, someone decided that we can get through the math sequence quickly, so we should.” But can and should are two distinctly different concepts, he contends. Consider this in the context of other disciplines. In history, literature, or science, for example, it is not difficult to imagine the academic benefit of knowledge that is deep rather than knowledge that is gained quickly. A student who has the opportunity to explore a particular era or text in depth has an advantage over the student who paces through material quickly. In math, however, it is harder to imagine that "depth" is more beneficial than getting through content at an accelerated pace.
Ultimately, Mr. Nelson makes a strong argument for developing deep knowledge, not just in math but also across the academic disciplines.
"I teach math, but I’m an educator who recognizes how important it is that students understand the scope of history, that they can analyze and synthesize information and data in science, that they can read critically and express themselves coherently. I want to educate students who are good in everything they do. I want to foster well-rounded excellence, not just graduate students who are good at math."
What is distinct about the RCLS math program?
Almost as often as I hear the question about accelerated math options, I receive the feedback that prospective families “have heard that the math program is really good at RCLS.” Indeed, I can testify to that, myself, as my own daughter has excelled in an advanced math sequence in high school after having been through the accelerated math program in RCLS’s middle school. To that end, I offer my own testimony alongside Mr. Atwood’s that his children were “very prepared for high school math (and high school, in general). There was quite a bit of material that was review for [his kids] in high school.”
RCLS’s math program is distinct in Rochester. In many ways, this distinctiveness derives from the priorities of the school, in general.
1. Foundation matters, and there is a lot of time and attention devoted in the early years at RCLS to that “foundation.” When students know both their math facts and the “sense” behind those numbers and they have ample opportunity to practice math, they can work their way through the most perplexing of math problems as they progress through the grades.
2. An accelerated track that begins at about 5th grade (more formally in middle school) enables motivated students to accelerate a year (or more, for some), but depth of understanding is not compromised in this acceleration. Small class sizes and teachers who know their learners really well mean students can be taught (and even challenged) individually. This is true in lower grades, as well.
3. A culture of grace and a commitment to excellence lend students the confidence they need to be “good” at math. Grit is worth a lot––it is a character issue, after all–– so this is encouraged and rewarded, accordingly.
What can parents of young students do to promote math development?
Here is what some of RCLS’s math experts have to say.
1. Don’t talk about how bad you were at math.
Mr. Nelson is talking to you, parents! It’s true—“I hear parents say all the time that they were bad at math,” Mr. Nelson explains. When kids hear their parents say this, students may more readily "give up" and excuse their lack of effort as a lack of ability. Instead, Mr. Nelson advises, foster confidence in your kids. Reward grit. In most cases, adds Mr. Atwood, “math just takes work—practice.” He worries when students “learn” at an early age that they are “good” or “bad” at math. Instead, they should learn to persevere. After all, math is not the only hard thing that life will present them.
2. Look for math in everyday activities.
Grocery shopping. Cooking. Architecture and angles. Math is everywhere. Students who have the opportunity to engage with math frequently and relatably are more likely to be confident in their knowledge and able in their skills. Mr. Nelson proposes engaging your students in functional math as you go about daily activities with them.
3. Play math games.
This is related to the idea of making math “relatable.” Importantly, when Mr. Nelson advises math games, he does not mean students should do more math games on the computer. (How about that from the tech teacher?) Instead, play board games––Ticket to Ride, Life, and more––there are so many board games that work to encourage basic math skills and “number sense.” Mrs. Frey notes that this is part of what her 1st graders love about math in her classroom. The Bridges program includes math games that encourage skills without students realizing they are practicing their math skills. Parents might give their kids the same opportunity at home. There are a lot of great board games for kids out there.
In short, we believe the numbers say it all with regard to the strength of our students and the quality of RCLS's math program:
Standardized test scores: RCLS students take the NWEA standardized test every spring and fall. For a recent 8th grade class, the average RCLS math score was at the 73rd percentile of standardized scores.
High school outcomes: Survey data from a recent alumni class reveals that RCLS students do well in the freshman year of high school, not just in math, but across disciplines.
In their freshman year…
21% of the class took Algebra 1.
74% of the class took Honors Geometry.
5% of the class took Honors Algebra 2.
The average overall GPA of the class was 3.84, with 45% of the class earning a 4.0 after their first semester of high school.
Our conclusion? RCLS offers an extraordinary, foundational education for some of Rochester's best kids. They make us proud!
We're still enrolling in some grades for the 2021-22 school year. Kindergarten? Elementary (limited spots)? Middle school?