As a Latina student, my experience in school was one with courses varying in quality—most of them weren’t challenging. Now that I spend my time working with Latino and English-learner serving organizations to push for effective implementation of higher standards, I spend a lot of time discussing what it means for a course to be rigorous, and how to ensure that students are engaging with the material.
When I have the opportunity to describe my own high school math experience, I am usually met with a tilt of the head and a furrowed brow, because it actually was quite challenging. See, I was part of a class piloting “crazy math,” as we called it, or the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), as it’s officially known, in the Denver Public Schools.
IMP integrates traditional math, like algebra and geometry, with subjects such as literature. It is designed to give students a more active role in their learning. They work with complex and realistic situations, rather than with problems fitting a rigid format—problem-solving, reasoning and communications are major goals of the program.
My mother was against me attending my low-achieving neighborhood high school. So, to keep me safe and ensure a quality education I sacrificed two hours a day on a city bus to get across town to a well-regarded neighborhood school near the University of Denver.
It was hard. Prior to this program, I spent seventh and eighth grade struggling to get through Algebra I. In IMP I didn’t get a textbook with formulas, equations and definitions of mathematical concepts to memorize—a disappointment, since I had figured out pretty early on that I have a good memory and most of my teachers wanted a quick answer that mimicked what they’d said in an earlier class. Listen, memorize, repeat. Easy-peasy.
My teacher, Ms. Martin, and her “crazy math” program turned my world upside down. No more was there anything to memorize, no more could I sit in my corner of the room and do my worksheet solo. I had to think critically, brainstorm, hypothesize and work in groups.
In a unit on “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the Edgar Allan Poe story, we used an excerpt about the prisoner being tied down while a pendulum with a sharp blade slowly descends. We had to determine whether the prisoner would actually have enough time to escape. To do this, we had to conduct experiments to find out what variables determine the length of the period of a pendulum swing and what the relationship is between the period and these variables.
Ms. Martin had quite a charge before her. But she excelled in helping us think creatively and providing us the guidance necessary to keep moving forward. I have a clear memory of Ms. Martin kneeling near my desk with a look of concern as I hung my head wanting to give up, wanting to cry and run from that room. She believed in my ability to succeed.
Unfortunately, many low-income students and students of color lack access to a rigorous high school curriculum. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has reported that 3,000 high schools serving nearly 500,000 students offer no classes in Algebra II, a key subject included in the SAT. In addition, more than 2 million students in 7,300 schools have no access to calculus classes.
What are we doing to ensure that our young people have the kinds of courses necessary to prepare them for life beyond school? Those in which they learn academic content and critical thinking skills?
The organizations I work with are providing their own after-school programs, they’re fighting to keep in place rigorous academic standards like the Common Core and in some places they’re opening schools that meet these needs.
Clifford Adelman has found in his research that the academic rigor of high school classes better predicted whether a student would graduate from college than their GPA, class rank or test scores, especially for students of color.
As advocates for students we need to ensure the policies we’re putting in place provide for challenging classroom opportunities—even when it’s “crazy.”