by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
In recent weeks this site as been filled with stories about the connection between time in the classroom and student success. One post, “A ‘Timely’ Example”, discussed the creation of a unique Algebra 1 program predicated on the formation of a two-credit Algebra 1 class that was possible due to the nuances of the state requirements for graduation and the availability of an Algebra 1 part 1 credit. While this approach produced excellent results, one of the major complaints voiced by teachers both inside and outside the math department was that such innovation could only occur when two credits were being offered for two years of work. While relevant, this concern is not an insurmountable barrier to similar creativity in finding more time for struggling students.
A Good Snowball Effect
One of the main reasons for implementing our innovative approach to Algebra 1 was the extremely large number of ELL (English Language Learner) students at our school. But this program was not the only critical adjustment we made for this population. For this segment of the student body we found the best math sequence was enrolling in Algebra 2 after passing Algebra 1. Geometry would then be taken the next year thus allowing the maximum amount of time to strengthen their English skills. We also found that for most at-risk students whether ELL or not, this path worked better since it did not place a school year between the Algebra courses. This philosophy plus the success of the two-year programs resulted in unprecedented numbers of students entering into the Algebra 2 classes. While this was news to delight the hearts of the entire school community, there were some fundamental problems.
No Good Program Goes Unpunished
As previously documented, one of the compelling reasons for the modified Algebra 1 program in addition to our demographics was the fact that the top 50% of our math students took Algebra 1 in middle school. The typical high school first year Algebra class is popu
lated with many students with a history of difficulties in math. But this segregation disappears after Algebra 1. That top half of the eighth graders takes Geometry in their freshman year and enrolls in the second year of Algebra as sophomores. While many move into honors sections, a large number are in the standard classrooms. For the traditional Algebra 1 students this pairing was not a problem. However, it became quickly apparent that the new wave of “two-credit” Algebra 1 graduates were struggling with the speed, intensity and the competition of this next level. Teachers were finding it increasingly difficult to construct a curriculum that would effectively meet the needs of students on the path to calculus and others whose main goal was to acquire that elusive third math credit for graduation.
Same Song, Different Verse
The Algebra 2 teachers met to discuss this dilemma. We could pretend that placing this academically diverse pool of students in the same room could work but we had already seen that was not realistic. We could mandate that the teachers find a way to differentiate instruction to meet the far-flung student needs but while that approach sounds good on paper it is a formula for low teacher morale and frustration neither of which would improve student performance. The consensus view was that additional time and the consistency of meeting every day were the factors that had created success in Algebra 1 for these students. It was decided that to ensure their continued success there needed to be a double block Algebra 2. The problem was that unlike Algebra 1 the state only offered one credit for the course. I met with my principal and the director of guidance to advocate for the formation of the class. Both were supportive of the idea but were leery about whether we could convince the school community to devote the equivalent of two years for one credit. To determine if double block Algebra 2 was indeed workable, one of my teachers volunteered to pilot a test class and the experiment began.
One Small, Careful Step at a Time
I spoke recently on the phone to that volunteer to get his recollections of the process which began in the 2002-03 school year.
“I made a big mistake the first year. I recruited the students who had shown the greatest difficulty with the two-year Algebra 1 for the one double block Algebra 2. But what I did wrong was to teach that class differently from my three regular Algebra 2 sections. The double block kids did okay, 15 out of 24 (62%) passed the end-of-course exam, which was above the state average, but they were well below the 75% I had in the standard classes. The next year is when we figured it out. I taught the one double block exactly the same as the regular. They all had the same assignments, quizzes, and tests. The only difference was the amount of time. The results were amazing. Remember, I was working with the bottom group in terms of talent for the double block versus a much stronger group in the regular. The class average for the double block was one point less than the regular and they had identical pass rates on the state tests—above 80% which was better than the district average.”
We had found the formula for success. Now we had to sell it. My volunteer and I began the “Double Block Algebra 2 Tour”. We presented the data to the other math teachers, counselors, PTSA members and the administrative team. Our most compelling point for parents was that while the cost was high, two periods of a student’s day, that price was acceptable for the result—a third math credit and a passing score on the barrier exam. Perhaps the best salespeople were the students themselves who were regaling their peers with stories of their success in the previously daunting Algebra 2 classes. Two years later (2005-06) 120 of our Algebra 2 students (about 40%) were in the double block and the results were stunning. On the state exams our overall pass rate for Algebra 2 was 96%, which with the exception of the magnet school was the top average in the district. There were some surprising consequences. An old educational maxim was turned upside down—with an opportunity to work with weak students in a format that would result in success, teachers were volunteering to have the double block classes. Other departments began to consider finding ways to create similar courses. One additional word of caution is required. There is a common misconception that double block courses require additional staffing. If such classes have the usual complement of students that concern is unfounded. There will be a shifting of teacher resources to the departments offering this format but no overall positions would be jeopardized.
A Few Words of Warning
Every educational innovation should be introduced slowly under controlled conditions, reevaluated regularly and altered whenever necessary. In this particular endeavor guidance counselors and math teachers were key. They had to clearly understand which individuals would benefit from such a program. Double block classes are not the answer to all student shortcomings. Attendance and behavior issues are not resolved by twice as much class time. Nor should the double block be a dumping ground for unprepared students. Building in flexibility in changing schedules is paramount. Teachers should consistently monitor their students and move them into the proper placement whenever necessary.
No Good Program Goes Unpunished Part 2
Because of the unprecedented success of the Algebra 2 program, a flood of students was now enrolling in geometry. So, I met with the director of guidance and the principal and, well, you know the rest of the story. Luckily, they are both still speaking to me. That is because one trait they shared in common was that they really like student success.