More SFUSD students ready for calculus under Common Core curriculum

Alma Velazquez knows that freshman students in her Algebra 1 class begin the school year with various skill levels. They come from different middle schools — some in the San Francisco Unified School District, others not — to her class at The Academy — San Francisco @ McAteer.

This past school year, one student missed class often. Alma paired this student with two others who already possessed strong algebraic skills, but who hadn’t fully grasped graphs. The student with frequent absences had gaps in her knowledge. However, she caught on before the others and discovered her ability to identify a graph with an equation.

“Her feeling of, ‘I do have something to contribute to the conversation,’ made her feel more comfortable in participating than just stating what her idea was,” Alma said. “Now she’s one of my strongest math students.”

Such examples are what Alma sees among her students with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) math curriculum, intended to make learning more collaborative and conceptual than previous math courses.

Now educators, policymakers and researchers across California and the nation — including leaders from 75 districts and schools, as well as the California School Board Association — are turning to the San Francisco Unified School District to consult on course sequence policies, placement practices and efforts to end tracking.

One of the four key recommendations from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ report, “Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations,” encourages the discontinuation of tracking among both students and teachers, calling it “unjust.”

“Student tracking is insidious because it places some students into qualitatively different or lower levels of a mathematics course and, in some cases, puts students into terminal mathematics pathways that are not mathematically meaningful and do not prepare them for any continued study of fundamental mathematics or effective participation in democratic society,” the report states.

Some, however, are wondering whether the new math policies that emphasize equity in classrooms are holding some students back. By keeping students with a range of mathematical strengths in the same classroom, how do educators know if students are given enough rigorous material? How do parents know if their children are actually developing the mastery in math they need to be successful in college?

Changing how and when math is taught

Just before SFUSD introduced its CCSS math curriculum into the classrooms of all 1,800 math teachers in the fall of 2014, I attended a professional development day for teachers.

At the time I was an education reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, and this hands-on, collaborative approach to math that I covered marked the first significant change to SFUSD’s math curriculum in nearly two decades.

Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, told me when I attended the professional development day, “There’s no such thing as a ‘math person’ or math gene or math gift.”

Boaler’s statement effectively summarizes what SFUSD wants to achieve by reducing tracking to ensure all students succeed in rigorous mathematics in creative and interactive ways.

New data shows how this effort is successful. Going into the 2018–19 school year, not only are more students ready to take calculus than in previous years, but the students who’ve completed the precalculus requirements are more diverse.

With the introduction of CCSS, one significant change in SFUSD is the math course sequence for high school students. Per the new policy, SFUSD recommends CCSS Algebra 1 in 9th grade and CCSS Geometry in 10th grade. In 11th grade, students may take either CCSS Algebra 2 or CCSS Algebra 2 + Precalculus.

There are other options for students, however. After taking CCSS Algebra 1 in 9th grade, students may double up with CCSS Geometry and CCSS Algebra 2 in 10th grade. Another avenue is to double up freshman year, by taking CCSS Algebra 1 and CCSS Geometry in 9th grade. That route allows students to then take CCSS Algebra 2, or CCSS Algebra 2 + Precalculus, in 10th grade. Some students also take an intensive CCSS Geometry course in summer school.

While many touted the new curriculum as a positive shift away from pushing for quick answers and toward making sense of open-ended problems, and getting students to understand why and how they achieved a solution, it’s no secret that the change — as most do — came with concerns.

The changes to SFUSD’s math classes have even drawn the attention of some of the city’s elected officials, with a few advocating for the district to return to its old ways. Concerned parents still hold the belief that students need a stand-alone Algebra 1 class sooner than 9th grade in order to access more advanced college-prep math in high school.

More students than ever ready for higher level math

But nearly four years after SFUSD rolled out its new math curriculum and policy, data from the first cohort of students who experienced the thoughtful progression of content from algebra, geometry and statistics in middle grades shows that more students than ever before are actually enrolled in courses that will prepare them to take calculus.

In the 2017–18 school year, there were 1,170 students enrolled in calculus. Going into the 2018–19 school year, however, there are 1,536 students who have completed the precalculus requirements to be eligible for calculus — that’s nearly 400 more students than the school year prior.

What’s even more exciting is the students enrolled in the course immediately preceding calculus (either taking Precalculus or the CCSS Algebra 2 + Precalculus compression course) are more diverse than in previous years. There are 167 Latino students eligible for calculus, compared to the 77 Latino students enrolled in calculus the previous school year. Other subgroups are also seeing greater access to higher level math, including African American, Filipino and Pacific Islander students.

Overall, San Francisco public school students are successfully completing more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses. The class of 2018 earned significantly more math and science credits than past cohorts. African American students, on average, are earning about one more semester’s credit in science.

The fact that more students will be ready to enroll in Calculus this coming fall than in previous years — and that students who identify in all different ethnic groups fall into that category — is proving that the district is moving toward its goal.

“These data show that, actually, many more kids have access to Calculus today, as well as other 4th year math courses like AP Statistics,” said Lizzy Hull Barnes, SFUSD’s Mathematics Supervisor. “Since the passage of our course sequence policy in February 2014, families have been asking if their kids can still get to higher level math classes. With these data, we can confidently say that not only can our students access higher level math, they are accessing it.”

That’s what Alma Velasquez and other teachers will continue to strive for when they meet their new students in August: ensuring each student is able to access higher level math by tapping into their strengths and showing them that, as a team, they can be successful.