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Monday, November 16, 2009

Frantic parent email re: failed math program

Frantic parent email:

Dear Glenn,

K was helping A with his POW last night.  He was alarmed at how rusty his basic arithmetic was...he was very slow at basic computation and had problems breaking down the problem.  On doing a bit more arithmetic this morning I too noticed that the initial attack at a basic 13 (Its Friday the 13th) x 4, x 5 x 6 etc. was hesitant and patently wrong.  Once we worked it through he warmed up and started doing his arithmetic right...but wow...we start to friek out when this happens

This confirms some inclinations I have had about how much mental gymnastics A needs to keep his brain lubricated so to speak, and I don;t see or feel it happening in school...I am also really concerned that he will come out of middle school without a grounding in the California State Standards which are in fact incredible and thorough and necessary to learn and prepare him for either algebra or geometry in high school.

I am also hyper aware of how behind both E and D were when entering High School Math, and how disadvantaged they have been to not pass out of Algebra into geometry their freshman year.  It is affecting E now as she goes into the testing process which, much as everyone would like it to be otherwise is an incredibly important factor in making college choices etc. And she does wonderfully in math. It is just the sheer level or material covered that limits what other things you can do or know.  It is affecting D in that she would have liked to be in honors chemistry but could not do the math to make it in, simply because she has not gotten to that level soon enough.  I am sort of determined that A get the best possible shot, if he is capable, of getting to the level he can achieve.

So K and I are setting aside extra time during the week and weekend to work with A.  We are also considering a tutor (which totally kills me since we are paying such huge sums for school). But we need some help.  We need materials.  We need to know what to work on.  The standards, while very good and thorough, are for educators and hard to parse into actual problem sheets.  I mentioned my thoughts at the beginning of the summer to your administrator, I was glad to have materials for A to work on over the summer...but I feel like it needs to continue and it needs to happen now and fast and intensely.

A thinks incredibly literally/concretely...the conceptual approach, while important is not always the best in for him....he needs to do do do do PLEASE point me where to go to find appropriate math problems to do with him over the next two months and see what we can achieve so we can continue a program throughout the year and through next year.  We will begin this weekend with some problems we make up ourselves.

My response? Here it is:


I'm glad the book looks good to you. 

Kids go through math differently, as they do puberty, and what we think they knew as 10 year olds is often either forgotten or foggy for a while, then comes back. You might know that I was a 4th adn 5th grade teacher for 10 years and had many of my students as 7th and 8th graders here at our school , so I have a lot of anecdotal information about who they were at 10 yrs. old, who they were at 13, and who they are now. All of them are very successful in their high schools at this point. I, like you, was shocked at what was easy, becoming hard. But all the research I've read on puberty, plus my professional experience, indicates that this is a normal phase for many if not most kids and should be viewed with patience, not as a fixed trait.

I understand, as a parent, that you want the best for A., as do I. We spend 10-15 minutes daily on arithmetic reivew (yesterday on addition of fractions). Arithmetic is not the problem. If A. was considered a strong 5th grade math student, it was because arithmetic is the entire focus of the 5th grade year in his school. 

It is the more abstract thinking required for algebra that is developed in middle school, both at our school as well as the district.

I remember a conversation you and I had years back, after the SCAMP project, when you said that E., for the first time, was telling you how much she enjoyed thinking about the deeper math around her. It is the abstract, problem solving mind who enjoys exploring deeper math that we strive to develop at our school.


Was I frustrated with her email? Yes. I don't think she "gets" what a comprehensive, middle school math program looks like. I also believe she has a misguided image of her child's background in math from the previous school. Nevertheless, I believe that all parents should be heard with compassion and responded to with a clear head. Did I manage it this time? What would you have said differently?

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