Less maths, more time for children to learn

Students learning how to code at an Apple Store workshop in New York on Dec 9, 2015.
Students learning how to code at an Apple Store workshop in New York on Dec 9, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

US school district revamps curriculum over concern about emphasis on grades

A New Jersey school district recently joined the discussion in the US about over-achievement in elite schools and took steps to redesign its curriculum - cancelling an advanced mathematics programme for fourth and fifth graders as well as lowering the bar for participation in music programmes.

Its superintendent, Dr David Aderhold, in a letter to the community, called the system a "perpetual achievement machine" where grades had taken a back seat to learning. "While we value educational excellence, we also value the development of the 'whole child'," he said of the need for the changes.

In New York City too, Mayor Bill de Blasio and civil rights group the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People want to eliminate the test-only admissions policy for the city's elite public high schools - a move that might increase the number of black and Latino students but would punish Asian American students who dominate these schools.

Some have billed this as a "war on Asian success", because many of the students in these programmes are Asian Americans, whose parents are keen on maintaining the rigour of the school district.

In the West Windsor-Plainsboro district in New Jersey, Asians made up 54 per cent of enrolment in the 2011-2012 school year, against 33 per cent for whites, according to a 2013 demographic study.

LESS FIXATION ON GRADES

I don't think we are dumbing down the curriculum, but aligning with trends and getting away from test scores and grades.

MRS CATHERINE FOLEY, a former teacher and mother of three

Chinese and Indians account for a majority of the foreign-born student population.

Disagreements have risen along ethnic lines as non-Asian parents call for more balance in school and less emphasis on achievement.

Experts say these fault lines are showing because Asian parents, many of whom are immigrants with no friends or family in influential positions in the US, see the education system as the only way for their children to ultimately achieve a middle-class lifestyle.

"First-generation Asians in America, especially those who live in areas with large Asian populations, maintain strong social and cultural networks with other Asians," said Prof Mitchell Chang, professor of higher education and organisational change at the University of California, Los Angeles .

"These networks highly value academic achievement because this pathway is considered the most viable one for upward mobility, as compared to sports, the arts, entertainment," he pointed out.

It seems one critical reason for the change is the amount of anxiety students of the West Windsor- Plainsboro district are feeling.

During the 2014-2015 school year, the district sent 120 middle school and high school students for mental health assessments and found that 68 per cent of top-performing high school students were either always stressed or stressed most of the time.

In view of this, the district has eliminated high school mid-term and final examinations, relying instead on common assessments throughout the year.

But accountant Helen Yin, 47, who has two children aged 13 and five, said her elder child is not pushed to take supplementary classes. She expressed disappointment with some of the changes.

"I am open to redesigning courses, but I'm not satisfied with the reasons given," said Ms Yin.

In a letter to a local newspaper - West Windersot & Plainsboro News - another parent, Mr Mike Jia, lamented the scrapping of the Accelerated and Enriched Maths (A&E Maths) programme for the lower grades, even though his daughter had failed to get into it.

"America's K-12 (kindergarten through to 12th grade) maths education is falling behind the world... To build a solid maths foundation, it needs to start at an early age," he wrote.

Indeed, in the Programme for International Student Assessment, a yardstick for evaluating the quality of school education, the United States ranked 36th for mathematics, among 65 countries and economies, in 2012. Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong took the top rankings.

Some, however, might point out that the US is a more innovative society.

Former teacher Catherine Foley, 46, a mother of three, believes "it doesn't hurt to put (A&E Maths) off a couple of years".

Dr Aderhold told The Straits Times that part of the A&E Maths programme will be made available to all students at fourth grade. "The goal is to provide more mathematics to more students."

Mrs Foley, who is also the founder of a community group called Take Back Childhood, had been planning to move her 11-year-old out of the district for high school until the changes came about.

"I'm approaching this not just as a parent concerned about stress but also the misplaced focus on college admissions," she said.

Mrs Foley admits there has been friction in the community in the past few months, but she continues to reach out to all parents, noting a lot of common ground among them, such as the desire for differentiated levels of instruction.

"I don't think we are dumbing down the curriculum, but aligning with trends and getting away from test scores and grades," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2016, with the headline 'Less maths, more time for children to learn'. Print Edition | Subscribe