by James A. Bacon

Virginians are still suffering from massive confusion about what the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is proposing for its controversial Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative. The befuddlement arises from the use of various words that are seeming synonyms but have precise, different meanings when used by educators.

Two columns appearing in my inbox this morning illustrated the continued inability to get the story straight: one published by the Washington Post, which quotes James F. Lane, state superintendent for public instruction, and one by the Virginia Star, which cites VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle.

Here is the root of the problem. “Tracking” means one thing. “Accelerated pathway” means another. “Advanced courses” means another. Lane and Pyle are choosing their words very carefully. But journalists are missing the nuances.

Tracking” refers to the practice of differentiating students by ability and putting them in slow-lane and fast-lane classes in which teachers can teach at an appropriate pace for each. The thought of forcing children into one-size-fits-all classes has many parents up in arms and VDOE on the defensive. The fear of eliminating tracked classes has driven the controversy.

The term “accelerated pathway,” Pyle told me, is the term to describe a student skipping to a higher class — “for example, a sixth grade student who is learning seventh-grade mathematics content.” It is not synonymous with a tracked class for advanced students.

An “advanced course,” says Pyle, refers to courses above the level of Algebra II, such as pre-calculus, calculus, or trigonometry. It is not synonymous with a tracked class for advanced students.

Add one more confusing term to the mix: “differentiated instruction.” As best as I can determine this phrase is akin to another phrase I have seen used, “enrichment.” Both describe how advanced students in mixed-ability classes would be allowed to explore “extension topics” in greater depth. Differentiated instruction addresses the dilemma of how to keep high-achieving math students challenged in one-size-fits-all classes.

Lane has said a lot of things in his effort to still the waters. “We are not eliminating accelerated courses. We are not reducing the rigor of our courses. … We’re not eliminating any pathways to calculus,” he said at a press conference last week. At no point in the press conference did he say that the elimination of “tracking” was off the table. Indeed, in his public pronouncements, Lane does not talk about “tracking” at all.

He repeated similar verbal formulations again in an interview with WaPo columnist Jay Mathews. Lane said it was premature to assume how the new Math Pathway would turn out, as the standards are still a work in bureaucratic process. Mathews interpreted his statements as insisting that “the state has no plans to eliminate tracking (separate classes for students at different levels) from kindergarten through 10th grade.” But at no point does Mathews quote Lane as actually saying that. 

Apparently seeking clarification after the Lane interview, Mathews talked to spokesman Pyle. He wrote: “Lane’s spokesman later told me ‘he does unequivocally denounce the idea that every student should be forced to take the exact same math courses at the same time without options for acceleration.’”

What does that mean? The superintendent does not reject one-size-fits-all classes — he rejects such classes without options for acceleration. That’s a weasel-word way of saying that he does accept mixed-ability classes as long as (refer to the glossary above) high-achieving students have the ability to skip a grade in math instruction. But Mathews understood, and reported, it as a rejection of mixed-ability classes altogether.

Similarly, in a column in the Virginia Star Dave Huber, a retired educator, conflated the the terms “advanced classes” and “acceleration.”

A little over a week ago reports surfaced that the state would be doing away with advanced math classes for all grades except 11 and 12. But then reports came out noting the state’s education chief disputed those reports, saying “absolutely acceleration is not going away in mathematics courses.”

However, it was unclear whether this “acceleration” would be done via specialized courses, or whether teachers would have cater to students’ individual needs via “differentiated instruction” in mixed-ability level (heterogeneous) classes.

At least Huber acknowledges the verbal confusion.

Public school educators are under no illusions. Last week I quoted a “talking points” memo written for the Fairfax County school board that said the VMPI would provide students “a path to explore mathematics in a way that meets their needs without having to take a different course than their grade-level peers.”

Lane could easily end the confusion once and for all by coming out and saying, “The Virginia Mathematics Pathway Initiative will not eliminate tracking.” But he hasn’t. He has said everything but that.

There are two ways to interpret Lane’s choice of words. One is that he is too obtuse to see the source of confusion. I don’t believe that. The other interpretation is that he is deliberately playing upon that confusion because it serves his purposes. He knows that the “tracking” issue could become an explosive issue in an election year in which Republicans could recapture the House of Delegates by winning seats in Northern Virginia where the outcry has been the loudest. Lane wants to submerge the issue while the Math Pathway continues down its bureaucratic path. But he doesn’t want to lie. Rather, he has chosen a strategy of obfuscation.

So far, it’s working.

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15 responses to “Ball of Confusion”

  1. Publius Avatar

    Re: “Lane’s spokesman later told me ‘he does unequivocally denounce the idea that every student should be forced to take the exact same math courses at the same time without options for acceleration.’”

    Sounds like the Catholic politician being personally opposed to abortion, but not wanting to impose his morality on others…
    (and ignoring the obvious non-sequitur that any law passed is an imposition of that viewpoint as the “legal” one…)

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    The goal is to end tracking. That has always been the goal. That is still the goal. Northam, et al think tracking is racist and they don’t want to see anymore of it.

    This is a major change, not “rebranding” or “tweaking”.

    Eliminating tracking causes plenty of problems. One critical problem is that fast tracking is essential for high math aptitude students to get to 12th grade with the background necessary to take calculus. To counter this Northam, et al have:

    1. Broken apart the curriculum in an effort to make the math classes through 10th grade easier.
    2. Defined Algebra II (without trigonometry) as the most advanced math class required to graduate.
    3. Defined the imaginary process of “enrichment” whereby high aptitude math students will get extra work in untracked classes to allow them to get far enough ahead to be ready for calculus in 12th grade.
    4. Created a situation where high aptitude math students in 11th grade, freed from untracked mixed ability classes, will have to scramble to “catch up” in order to be ready for 12th grade calculus. This includes abbreviating some classes, like pre-calculus, from a yearlong course to a semester course.

    The net effect is that the high aptitude math students will be under-educated relative to their potential. They won’t be able to catch up in one year (11th grade) so the calculus class will have to be dumbed down to reflect the lack of preparation arising from the elimination of fast-track math classes.

    This ill-conceived idea was supposed to “fly under the radar” and progress without much notice. That didn’t happen. On the heels of dumbing down Thomas Jefferson this is another of the Northam regime’s attempts to further dumb down public education in Virginia.

    Realizing that they had been unable to hide this change or fob it off as “rebranding” or “tweaking” Lane and Pyle are now lying by omission. They know full well what their proposal entails but refuse to honestly discuss the matter until after this Fall’s election.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Agreed, these proposals are major and move in a bad direction. I’m just saying hooray they are now out there, and in all fairness none have actually been adopted yet. Add this to the list of a dozen or more bright line issues where the voters can move Virginia back to sanity. Or not.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      “I see nothing.”

    3. I would not dispute anything in your assessment.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    I wouldn’t underestimate the VDOE’s ability to sneak VMPI in the back door. It will take a sustained effort to defeat VMPI. Will voters and parents pay attention long enough? Don’t forget that the SOLs came to us this way in the late 1990s. An initial push back never maintained momentum and SOLs are still here.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Not long ago there was a hubbub about a possible plan to bus students to and from the Langley and Herndon areas. As always, “equity” was the basis for having kids sit through Northern Virginia’s horrific traffic to ride by closer schools to get to further schools.

      There was a meeting to discuss the matter. 300 parents showed up to combat the idea. The answer? “Oh, there’s really no such plan.” Once again the educrats had gotten caught in the attempt to sneak major change in through the back door.

      Unless Terry McAuliffe is defeated this Fall busing will be implemented within three years and fast tracking of high aptitude math students will be banned.

  4. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    All this discussion and debate is healthy, useful and timely. By timely I mean that none of this was on the fast track to quick passage, but instead we are in a fairly early stage in the adoption process. Even under the published timeline, decisions will be made under the next Governor, not this one. And the published timeline, with the pandemic disruption, is likely to be extended.

    So one reason things are unclear is because they are….undecided. As is normal this early in a curriculum re-write. This is not to say relax the pressure, just the opposite. But there is time to clarify and revise. Stories like the one I link below are political gamesmanship, positing this was some kind of “done deal” when it never was.

  5. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Every discipline has its terms, which have exact meanings to those in the discipline. You have done folks a favor in defining and distinguishing the various terms. Just because journalists in general have not taken the time to do that, thereby causing the mass confusion and uproar, is not the fault of DOE or Secretary Lane.

    So, now we are down to “tracking”. This is a red herring that is being drawn into the discussion either as a way to prolong it or to obfuscate it.

    First of all, tracking is a decision left to the local divisions. Whether or not a school division uses tracking, i.e. ” differentiating students by ability and putting them in slow-lane and fast-lane classes in which teachers can teach at an appropriate pace for each” could very well depend on a division’s budget. It may not be able to afford to have enough teachers to offer different “tracks”. Or it could be a factor of the number of students. There may not be enough students that would qualify for a higher track to justify offering such a course.

    Second, I am not convinced that math course lend themselves to tracks. Some areas, such as English and history do, but math courses are different. After all, Algebra II is Algebra II. There is a defined amount of material to master. There is no such thing as “accelerated” Algebra II. Those students who get it easily will get A’s; those not getting it so easily, C’s.

    Third, no matter what is the official policy, there will be tracks. When I was in high school (an eon ago), tracks were no longer used. Mrs. Penick, Miss Walker, and Miss Cheatham all taught 11th grade English. There was no official “accelerated” English class, but everyone knew which one it was.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Well, you’re not claiming this is just a rebranding exercise anymore. That’s progress.

      “First of all, tracking is a decision left to the local divisions.” Great. Then why wouldn’t Lane just say that?

      “Second, I am not convinced that math course lend themselves to tracks.”

      Math tracks have been working for at least the 44 years since I graduated from FCPS. Despite graduating from one of the worst academic high schools in the county at that time there is no question that I had a college level of understanding of calculus when I arrived at UVa. I think LarrytheG claimed that Virginia was #4 in math nationally. If so, that ranking was achieved using tracks for math.

      “After all, Algebra II is Algebra II. There is a defined amount of material to master.”

      Wow. Wildly wrong. Multiple algebra courses are often required in order to obtain a math major at top universities. Here is Yale’s math curriculum …

      5 different 300 level courses in Algebra. It seems Yale’s math majors didn’t run out of things to learn about algebra in high school.

      “There may not be enough students that would qualify for a higher track to justify offering such a course.”

      15% of high school students take calculus. Using this as a proxy for fast track math it would take a student class of 200 to generate enough students (at 15%) to create a fast track of 30 students. A high school of 800 or more students would be big enough for fast track math.

      How many high schools in Virginia have fewer than 800 students?

      “Third, no matter what is the official policy, there will be tracks.”

      Wow (again). So, it doesn’t matter what the government says or does. Kind of makes you wonder what Lane is doing, doesn’t it?

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I do not doubt that you acquired a college level understanding of calculus in high school. In the terminology that Jim outlined, calculus would be an “acclerated course”. Tracking would not be involved unless there were two levels of calculus–one for people like you and one for people like me.

        I am well aware that multiple levels of algebra are required to obtain a math major in college. But, this discussion is about high school curricula, not college.

        In your example of 800 students, it seems that you are using the term “fast tracking” to mean either “accelerated pathway” or “accelerated course” as those terms are used by DOE. This is an example of what Jim was talking about–people using the same term, in this case, “tracking”, to mean different things.

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          If you lack the preparation to undertake an accelerated course like calculus in high school then you will fail to get a college level understanding of calculus in high school.

          By my definition, fast tracking tracking means separate classes composed exclusively of students that have demonstrated superior aptitude in math. This is not hard to understand. It is what is done today.

          The field of algebra is wide. Any high school course can cover as much, or as little, of that field as the school decides. When I was in high school we began studying geometry in the fourth quarter of Algebra II (in the fast tracked class). The material was distributed on mimeographed hand-outs. We ended geometry by studying pre-calculus. We ended pre-calculus by studying calculus. By the time we showed up for our first calculus class in 12th grade we already had 3 months of calculus (from 11th grade) under our belts.

          That is what allowed us to gain a college freshman’s level of calculus understanding while in high school. This, in turn, allowed people to “place out” of entry level college calculus requirements.

          If you eliminate fast tracking based on math aptitude you eliminate the ability of students with high math aptitude to get a year’s worth of college calculus done in high school.

  6. Virginia Republican Avatar
    Virginia Republican

    An additional issue to consider will be the impact to teachers. The Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) and Superintendent Lane’s proposed Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI) will put all students into a single course, regarding of their ability or academic need. Teachers will be expected to offer a ‘deeper learning experience’ for each student in their classroom: so for a class with 30 students, that would equate to a teacher teaching 30 different lesson plans in order to provide that deeper learning experience: challenging even the best of teachers. Annually, the VBOE reports in its Commonwealth of Virginia Critical Shortage Teaching Endorsement Areas report that Virginia has a shortage of secondary (grades 6-12) mathematics teachers – the VMPI can only add to the shortage. The VBOE and Supt Lane’s VMPI proposal is a lose-lose for our students and teachers.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Of course you are right. The idea that a teacher will run multiple “tracks” of learning inside a single class of students with mixed math aptitudes will result in those with more aptitude being slowed down. Those high aptitude students will not be able to catch up in 11th grade. They will get only a semester of pre-calculus in 11th grade for example. They will enter 12th grade hoping to learn calculus but will need at least one quarter of remedial math instruction to make up for being held back in 8th through 10th grades.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        It’s not a teacher decision. It’s a school decision about how to allocate it’s staff to the needs of the students.

        Tracking, per se, is not evil or bad unless it locks a kid into a lower track that they cannot get out of to a more advanced track.

        If you do some reading on tracking, you’ll see the issues with it. It can be very harmful to lower level kids who are improving… it can hold them in a lower track and hurt them academically.

        I’m amused by folks who use the word “elitism” and “elites” and then talk about “tracking” for the higher level kids.

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