Math and the Message

“This isn’t right,” she says. “This can’t be right. All my friends got Math 7.”

My soon-to-be 6th Grade daughter is near trembling as she held her the schedule for the upcoming school year. She compares her paper with friends who were both part of her peer group as well has having the last name L through S. This is the day incoming 6th Grade students pick up their daily schedules from the gymnasium. She is at first dismayed that she isn’t in the same class as her friends. This is a bummer to kids, to be sure. But one that we all deal with and are able to handle. However, eventually it dawns on her that she was placed in a different math course from her peer group altogether: Math 6. Plain old, Math 6.

Last year, as a fifth grader, she received the message that she’d be placed in an accelerated math program. Students who were identified as Gifted and Talented were all part of the same cohort and participated in pull-out math throughout the year. There they received enrichment opportunities. She – and presumably her peers that were not part of these pull-out options – knew full well what this opportunity meant: she was one of the smart kids.

It’s in those gifted and talented pull-outs that she made her closest friends. Because why wouldn’t you? These were the well behaved kids. This was the fun class where kids get to play math games. These were the kids who were told that they were uniquely gifted and talented at mathematics.They were X-Men. They were invited to attend Hogwarts School of Wizardry. They all had that in common.

Most of those peers of hers were placed in a 7th Grade math course for the upcoming school year. They were deemed to be far enough along according to a few different metrics such that they could skip 6th grade math in order to take higher math earlier. There are three different metrics the school uses and kids have to excel in two of the three exams, including an “Algebra Readiness Test.” My daughter only excelled in one of the three exams, and not the “Algebra Readiness Test,” which, according to the school counselor, is the one that really matters. She was placed into 6th grade math, which makes sense: she’s a 6th Grader. But that’s not the message she’s receiving today.


Flashback Charles Dickens-style 6 years ago when my daughter brought home the following artifact from her Kindergarten class.


Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.14.33 AM

When I saw this artifact emerge from the trappings of her backpack I was stunned. Where had she gotten this message that she was a “late bloomer” at math? She wasn’t (and isn’t) a “late bloomer” at math in any sense of that loaded word-slaw. And she was in Kindergarten for crying out loud!

Regardless of where the message came from, the next six years were an attempt at combating the stereotype threat associated with being a young female mathematician. Roughly halfway through those six years, she took a test – the CogAT – in 2nd grade which ostensibly identifies Gifted and Talented individuals. She scored well enough to be identified as such in Math and English Language Arts. I was so proud of her, and that may have been a crucial mistake. My thinking at the time was that she had worked hard (she had!) and developed a sense of self-confidence (she had!) in math, as evidenced by the results of this test and teacher observations which placed her in this special cohort of special students.


Every night during dinner our little nuclear family of four have a conversation of questions. That is, one of us asks a question and then we go around the table and respond. This past Saturday, my question is “If you could go back in time to any year, what year would it be and why?” My wife says when she was 10 years old: that was the best age. My son says 1883 so he could warn everyone about the eruption of Krakatoa (what?). My daughter says she wishes she could go back in time to 5th grade and study for the “Algebra Readiness” test so she can be placed in the accelerated math class.

It’s probably worth noting that she didn’t have her Gifted and Talented identification revoked. I’m not even sure that’s possible or legal. Moreover, she is still on track to take Algebra in the 8th Grade, which – as we all know – places you on a track to take Calculus as a Senior in High School. Make no mistake: she’s still on a pathway of being in the “upper track” which feels gross to type on my computer screen. But she’s apparently not in the “upper upper track” which is deeply concerning to her; so much so that she brings it up at dinner as her point of time travel.


Let’s not let me off the hook here: I’d have been pleasantly pleased to have her be in a math class a year ahead, just as I was happy to see she was receiving special pull-out enrichment services in elementary school. I’m all too willing to take advantage of these opportunities from a place of privilege.  I’m not even in favor of the existence of such an accelerated math program, but I’d sure let her be in it given the chance.

This message is almost always unintentional. It is a bi-product of our dysfunctional understanding of the discipline of math that values correctness over effort, memorization over creativity, speed over thoughtfulness. It is also commonly used as tool with which we rank order and separate students. Sure, other subjects bi- and trisect the student body but none quite have the rusty edge that math does.


Math makes everyone feel stupid at some point. For many, it’s early on when you’re not fast enough during Math Minute. For others, it’s not until AlgebScreen Shot 2016-08-23 at 9.45.00 AMra. For others still, college Calculus is the first stomach punch. For many it’s all of the above. For my daughter, it was when she got that schedule and received the message that she was no longer one of the “smart kids.” Of course, the Original Sin was the message that there exist smart kids and not-quite-as-smart kids in math to begin with.

It took six years to communicate to my daughter that she was a brilliant mathematician. We do little Algebra exercises on the whiteboard. We worked through a SuScreen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.37.52 AMmmer curriculum to keep her brain finely tuned during the summer slog. Together, we once made an instructional video on an iPad to help a co-worker’s friend’s kid. And it took one piece of paper to undo that messaging. Of course, when a structure falls apart that quickly, that’s an indication it was built on a flimsy foundation. I wonder how long, if ever, she’ll re-receive the message once again that she is a brilliant mathematician. Or will we just have to wait for the next round of test results and keep our fingers crossed?


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Math and the Message

  1. Sarah Leiker says:

    I had so many emotions reading this…. frustration, anger, hope, desire to change the system, more frustration, wishes of mental strength for your daughter…. (1) Thanks for sharing this very real systemic truth. (2) If we can make even a dent in this type of system to send a message of the importance of a growth mindset and the message structures send to students to build or deflate that mindset (over “you are as smart as the track you are placed in”), then I’m still 100% in on not just reimagining teaching & learning, but on redefining the system. I’ll be anxiously awaiting updates from the 6th grade year!

    • Geoff says:

      I hear ya Sarah. Truth be told, the post (I feel) was more an indictment of myself than the school, district or system.

  2. robertkaplinsky says:

    Man, this was so hard to read. I think one part that resonates with me is how fragile our children’s identities can be. I totally identify with it from a parent perspective as well. Sigh.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The sad thing here is that your daughter doesn’t get to be with her friends next year. For the rest, do you really need validation from others that she’s good at math? Or worse, that she is a “brilliant mathematician”? Ego trips are dangerous. I sincerely hope that in spite of all the stress, your daughter continues to *enjoy* math.

  4. Steve Leinwand says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this all-too-common tale. We claim to empower students and then find 1000s of ways to destroy effort, initiative, curiosity and self-concept. To offset the depressing aspects of your post, I offer the reflections of a young lady off to college next week as a prospective math and computer science major who, with the support of her parents, opted out of 7th grade algebra:

    “The summer before I entered seventh grade, my dad told me I wasn’t going to take a math class during the school year. To say I was confused is an understatement; from an early age I had taken math every year and understood that this would continue until college where I would finally be free from the ever-present burden. So when my dad told me that math was out of the picture for a year, I was stunned. Before I could dance in circles and thank the heavens, my dad continued. I wouldn’t be taking a math class, but I would be learning and completing projects along a curriculum that he worked out with a math teacher. I would be alone in an office in the counselor hallway, I would have to keep it a secret, and most importantly, I would have to work through the problems myself using knowledge from past years.

    What transpired was something that none of us could have predicted. The year passed, and between sneaking into my little office the back way, fudging my way through my friends’ questions, and spending an entire year of math without a single worksheet, homework assignment, or test, I learned more than I’d learned in the rest of my schooling combined. Everything I had to discover for myself, and while I didn’t learn a single new theorem or formula or concept, I started to really understand everything that had been drilled into me for almost a decade. Through creating PowerPoints of graphs and charts, and measuring the speed of toy cars stolen from my brother, I was finally allowed to enjoy math; a change from my life of “advanced” classes and focus on getting good grades. No one gives you an award for loving a subject; yet I only truly excelled when I paused, stepped off the fast track, and let myself enjoy the ride.

    Although my sixth-grade self is probably banging her head against a desk, I can’t wait to major in math in college, a complete turnaround from my attitude when I was younger.”

    Please share this with you daughter.

    All of us need to ask why we enable this destructive and mindless rush to sort and accelerate.

    • Geoff says:

      Thank you for this wonderful message, Steve. I will.

      Check out my reply to Erica below – I’ve had a few folks reach out to me and share their story personally following this post. It’s been truly heartening and tender.

      There’s so much to wrestle with when it comes to the push for acceleration. I know in my heart of hearts that it’s ridiculous for 8th graders to be taking a High School Geometry course. I also want my daughter to believe that she can achieve math at the very highest levels (which she can!). It’s really difficult to mesh those two competing interests when there exists at the school an accelerated math program.

  5. Kate says:

    I love the way you put it: “Sure, other subjects bi- and trisect the student body but none quite have the rusty edge that math does.”

  6. Erica Snyder says:

    This breaks my heart. As the recipient of that AMAZING video where she, as a 4th grader, expertly explained the 3rd grade math to me, my neighbor, and her math traumatized 3rd grade daughter, I am frustrated for her. That moment when she took the time to explain what I really wasn’t understanding about the shift in elementary math instruction a la Common Core was one of the most personally and professionally rewarding moments for me. She was making a difference in the life of a girl that she’d never met through her math knowledge, communication skills, and empathy for what my neighbor was going through. She was also shaping the way I understood the challenges that parents face when a curriculum shifts and fundamentally changed the way I communicate about math in education. So while she may feel a lapse in math confidence, I hope she knows just how much I valued her brilliance as a mathematician when helping us understand those base 10 drawings. And how that very teachable moment continues to impact me in my current job. Her real-life application of her math skills impresses me more than any track or label ever will.

    • Geoff says:

      Thanks Erica. I was so proud of her for making that math video for y’all. More importantly, she was proud of herself. I’d like to get back to that, and I think we will eventually.

      A friend of mine this week was telling me about an almost identical experience she had. She presumed she was in the “upper” math but wound up not being in the “upper” math due to an exam on which she didn’t receive the highest marks. She didn’t get placed in the accelerated math program like she thought she would. Year later, in college, she had a math professor that really reached her and communicated that she was brilliant. She then switched her major from Spanish to Math.

  7. Robin says:

    I teach Adv 7th grade math & it breaks my heart when only about 2/3 of them get into 8th grade Algebra. However, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity for them to be in adv math even if just for one year. I am 100% behind allowing students to work above their age-group if that’s where their needs lie. More often than not, we do not adequately meet the needs of gifted children.

    As for your daughter, continue to praise her hard work in math, her interest in the subject, and show her all the beauty it holds outside the classroom walls. Consider getting her involved in Math Counts or UIL academic teams & have her compete against area peers in math, number sense, and calculator skills. Math Circles are fun as well as any STEM program that might be in your area. She might also be interested in learning about famous female mathematicians & the struggles they faced when not supported by their parents, schools, or society. Jo Boaler’s Youcubed website has tons of great math games, puzzles, videos, etc. Regardless, she has an advocate in you & that can help more than ever. Thank you for helping her believe that she can learn math to the highest level!

    • Geoff says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, Robin. She is in her second year of Lego Robotics, which has been awesome. She really enjoyed it last year and I’m hoping she does this year as well.

  8. Erik Teather says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. Great writing. Profound how our math self-image can change in a moment after it has taken so long for it to develop. Systems need to understand the unintended messages they continue to send their students. Parents as well. Time for self-reflection.

  9. Jo says:

    I’ve been thinking about this blog post since I read it 3 days ago because I have so many different thoughts about it.

    I’m a math coach in an inner city elementary school. Most of my kids are second language learners and are eligible for free lunch. I have kids coming into first grade who can’t count to 100 sitting next to kids who can tell me what all four operations mean and can manipulate numbers easily. The chasm on the reading side is even wider–kids who don’t know all the letter names with kids reading chapter books. They are starting at enormously different places. From day one, the kids with woefully little math experience are seeing that there is a group with lots of math experience and that they’re not part of that group. In their little six year old minds they’re often associating math “smartness” with speed and fall into the trap of putting down (or yelling out) any answer in the hope that they’ll be the “smart” (quick) one. I fight this as much as I can by trying to make the math block be about problem solving, and working the process out on chart paper and doing gallery walks but it’s hard to shift their thinking about this, even in first grade.

    We start some ability grouping as early as third grade by skimming off the kids who are comfortable working independently at grade level. There are several reasons behind this. First, these kids have gotten used to the idea that they never have to work very hard in math and that’s going to bite them later. Second, state testing is always breathing down our neck and we can get lot of points by pushing kids from proficient to advanced and pushing a proficient scoring kid to advanced is way easier than pushing a needs improvement scoring kid to proficient and worth as many points. Third, some of the kids who remain in the regular class get a little more room to shine and start believing they may not be so bad at this after all. Fourth, we too have the inevitable “they’re not going to get to calculus if we don’t start them early” which, for some of our kids, is going to be critical for getting into college. They’re not going to have tutors and private SAT prep classes and parents who understand the college application game–it all needs to come from school.

    The criteria for putting kids into the higher class is pretty loose. I do look at the standardized test scores but I mostly go on teacher recommendation. If I’m unsure, I will err on the side of putting them in. I will also put someone in midyear if their teacher feels it would be good. It ends up being about 1/3 of each grade level–sometimes more as I will make those classes bigger than the regular classes if I need to.

    The content and methods in the higher class is not different from the other classes. Everyone does a lot of exploration and project based learning but the higher classes spend less time on skills and more time on application. They all get to application, but some not as quickly as others.

    It isn’t perfect, but I can’t figure out a way to address the needs of all my students any other way. I know the kids know they’re being separated by ability but it’s not like it was some big secret that some had more math knowledge than others. In classes of 30 my higher kids were literally being given a worksheet and ignored while teachers struggled to get other kids to learn to count. I would love to go to ungraded classrooms where kids worked at their level in whatever subject but I don’t see public education going that way anytime soon.

    So, I’m really conflicted about this and I know I’m only seeing it from an urban school perspective. It sounds like it’s more arbitrary in your daughter’s school and my heart hurts for her. I suspect she would rise to the occasion if they put her in Math 7.

    • Geoff says:

      It’s so true. There’s no “clean” solution. I’m certainly not offering one.

      I think enrichment and differentiation is a net good. At least, I think I think that. It’s such a fine line between differentiation and tracking.

      How do we offer different services to kids who learn differently and at different paces while at the same time messaging to all students that they can do math at high levels? It’s a needle I’m not equipped to thread.

      • Jo says:

        That really is the big question of education in general I think–how do we reach every kid, especially in large classes with one teacher.

        I think it’s a little easier in reading–you can find different levels of print complexity that address the same theme or have the same level of text complexity and write equally complex tasks for books with different lexile levels. My school talks a lot about differentiation and task complexity–do I want kids to struggle with the concept of this math problem, the words they have to understand, or the numbers. If I can define that, they I can make 2 of those three accessible and they can do the hard work in just one place. With my more math facile kids I can load up the complexity of all three. It’s a start, but it’s sure not the whole picture.

        I hope you and your daughter have a good year–remember there are lots of different paths but they all get there in the end. My son is about to be a senior in high school and I am watching him suddenly come together as a functional human being–but the path was really hard for both of us at times and his school was really the catalyst for much of the angst.

  10. Anonymous says:

    My daughter was one of those rare people who “got’ numbers – factoring was easy for her, because she just somehow categorized “families” of numbers (“They kind of smell like the same color”). She took accelerated math classes throughout junior high, and then nearly didn’t graduate from high school because the school wouldn’t give her credit for all of the courses she had passed as a junior high schooler.
    Her fury still reverberates a decade later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s