Introducing an Intermediary Option for Math
Despite Packer’s self-identification as being a progressive institution, there is one flawed aspect of its identity that needs to be addressed: Packer’s Standard and Advanced math system, and the deep polarization of the two classes.
Hannah Youngwood (‘22) recently switched to Standard math after one year in Advanced math and said that “in Standard, it is a lot of review. You spend a lot of time on one particular topic which is a lot different because you will usually spend half an hour on a topic in Advanced and then move on, while we spend three to four classes on one topic in Standard.” She went on to say that while Advanced may have been too difficult, “Standard’s constant review is overkill” for her.
Others have identified the process of choosing who is placed in each class as the root of the issue. Adda Jones (‘21) also recently moved to Standard after several years of being in Advanced math and finds the process nonsensical.
“Because I did well in math in sixth grade, the school just decided that I would be in Advanced in seventh grade. For a lot of my friends, they were put into Standard in seventh grade and stayed there through high school. They could be just as good at math but they were not in that class.”
Another major problem Adda addressed is the lack of mobility between the two levels. We should be striving to give students different experiences in the math realm rather than feeling stuck in a certain class. However, having students constantly move between these two extremely different levels is not feasible, as some might not be able to catch up and others might become restless due to a slower pace.
The question remains: How can Packer both promote mobility and mitigate failure or boredom? The answer lies in establishing a “middle ground” between Standard and Advanced: a three-tiered math system rather than our current two-tiered system for Geometry to Pre-calculus.
Instead of choosing between a class dedicated to letting the students figure out the problems and one where the teacher steers you in the right direction, why can we not have both? Hannah’s ideal class “would be a mix of inquiry-based learning and the teacher actually explaining the topic.” Adda also believes that an intermediary class would be a perfect fit for her.
For calculus, we already have a three-level system in the Upper School. The Head of the Math Department, Ian Rumsey, stated that the current system “does a nice job of meeting the needs of our students.” However, Mr. Rumsey pointed out that calculus is unique because the ideas formed in calculus are unlike what students have explored in math in the past.
Tom James, Upper School Math Teacher, who has past experience teaching at a school where there was a three-level system, believes that it allows “more students [to be] able to align with a pace that feels right to them.”
In spite of all of the positives that come with having more people feel comfortable in math class, Mr. Rumsey believes that “if we really meet every student where they are at, then we would have 108 Pre-calculus classes for the 108 juniors.” He went on to say that without creating individualized classes, “[he does] not think there is any way we could say that every student is going to have their needs met.”
Mr. James voiced a different but also skeptical perspective. “I always worry from an equity standpoint about how status plays out in math and how mathematics is used as a proxy for intelligence in the general culture. I worry about the implication of having a class that feels like having a low-level class and who gets grouped into that class and what it means. That is what gives me pause about having a three-level system.”
There are pros and cons to creating another math class that would accommodate students who do not currently fit into the current mold. It is imperative, though, that the math department take this idea into consideration as it will help students grow into more confident math students. As Mr. James said, we should not strive “to be putting ceilings on people,” and should aim to let them unleash their full potential.