Here’s the situation:
You’re the principal of a large elementary school
Ooh, spooky. Read on — it gets worse!
You’re the principal of a large elementary school, and one of the decisions your school faces is what to do with young students who aren’t challenged by their class’ mathematical work.
A certain segment of the population of educators is rolling their eyes right now. Read on, read on.
For example, in your school there is currently a 1st Grader who does math above grade level, e.g. he performs long division in his head.
His parents initiated contact with the teacher after hearing their child complain that math at school was boring. They’re concerned that he isn’t being challenged.
The classroom teacher knows that he is above grade-level in math, and is trying to meet his needs in class. The parents, however, do not think the current situation is working. The teacher reports that the student is difficult to engage during math class, and that sometimes he misbehaves during math.
That’s the situation I posed in a little survey I recently shared on twitter. I then asked two questions:
- As principal, what policy would you want your school to do for someone like this 1st Grader?
- Do you encounter this situation, or something like this situation, in your current role in education? If so, how is it typically handled, in your experience?
Twenty-one people responded (responses here). This post is about what they said, and what I think about what they said.
Here was my process for writing this scenario. First, I thought about what I’ve seen happen in the schools I’ve worked at. Then I emailed someone with more experience with this stuff than me and asked her how this usually goes down at her schools. Then I basically ripped off her email for this scenario.
Which is a long way of saying that I was pretty sure that this was a realistic situation. Still, it was good to hear people say that it sounded right to them:
“Yes, there is a large range of abilities even in kindergarten.”
“I had 7 [6th Grade] students who tested at the 11th grade level last year.”
“My son IS this kid (and also in 1st grade).”
“Yes! Currently have similar situations in Grades 3 and 4; it’s a very rare year where this issue doesn’t come up.”
And let’s cut to the chase: according to people who are not me, how well do schools tend to handle this scenario?
A bunch of people thought their schools were handling this pretty well. A lot of these people, but definitely not all, were talking about high schools:
“I have high schoolers and would be willing to place a student in a higher level class if they could study and demonstrate mastery on a department final exam. I have tried assigning Khan Academy on an individualized basis.”
“Rarely [is this a problem] since math classes can easily be leveled, especially on a HS block schedule. And I think it’s easier for HS math teachers to connect to more advanced courses if they’ve taught them before. (In my experience HS math teachers change courses more often than elementary teachers change grade levels).”
“Yes, there is a large range of abilities even in kindergarten… It just takes patience.”
Then a bunch of people said that this was just not working at all in their schools:
“It’s pretty terrible at our school. We don’t have the resources to do anything when kids transfer having already knowing trig.”
“Tough one in High School, especially since we have no honors programs.”
“My son IS this kid (and also in 1st grade). I completely respect the teacher for trying to engage my kid, but he needs something else. Either allow him to work with some 2nd graders (this would be some massive coordination between grades), or give him new puzzles (logic stuff or solving mysteries or…), or help him with particular weaknesses during this time (perhaps social skills or OT), or become a librarian’s helper twice a week while others work with on-level stuff.”
“Typically slight pressure (or guidance) is applied to the teacher to differentiate and provide math learning for the student at the level and depth that they need. Of course, in reality this usually means that the teacher is given a few resources, tries hard, but is unable to challenge the student in the way that they need. Strategies such as open ended questions and 3-act problem solving help, but teaching is hard with so many diverse brains in a class and many teachers do not have experience or knowledge to extend math for such a student.”
“It varies wildly by building in our district but typically the response will be a lot of hand waving about how differentiation in the class is already occurring.”
“Student is given independent work while teacher works with others. Student is given consequences for behavior when not enriched.”
Some schools do seem to have figured out ways of making sure this problem isn’t just dumped on the classroom teachers:
“In grades K-2, these students are often pulled-out for additional math enrichment opportunities. Say the math block is 60 minutes. These students are pulled-out for around 15-20 minutes daily to work on enrichment tasks. This tends to happen at the discretion of the teacher and the groups change for every unit. There are 12 units.
In grades 3-5, there’s actually an advanced math class. The class is grade-level accelerated (3rd grade learns 4th grade concepts) and the criteria for that class depends on standardized test scores. These groups are not flexible and rarely change.”
But, overall, it seemed to me that this is a problem that people have experienced, and many (most?) find their school’s response frustrating.
If the status quo is often bad, what would educators prefer? The responses hardly coalesced around one idea, but I was able to group them:
- Find a pedagogical solution (differentiate, use groups, better tasks, etc.) 
- Assign challenges for the kid to work independently on 
- Create something outside of the school day (e.g. a club, a course) for the kid 
- Connect the kid(s) with an enrichment specialist 
- Let the kid go to a different math class during math 
And, finally, there were people  who recommended all of these things, essentially treating #1-5 as a ladder of intervention.
Which raises the possibility that everybody on my survey would agree with this, but they were all imagining slightly different situations.
Meaning, I didn’t read these as really disagreeing much. Of course, if you could provide a pedagogical solution — including extension work — that would typically be easier in any situation. And everyone would probably agree that it would be amazing to have another teacher who could come in and handle some of the kids. AMAZING.
And I bet that 95% of teachers would agree that moving kids to another class is the most complicated solution, the break-in-case of emergency solution.
But why? Why should moving to another grade’s math class be the last resort? After all, to people outside of schools it seems like it would be the simplest approach — it requires no extra work on the part of the teacher, no extensions, it’s compatible with whatever pedagogy, and you don’t need extra personnel to make it work. Why is this unpopular?
The easiest answer would be an ideological one — teachers don’t like inequitable solutions — but on the other hand do we really mind creating inequitable solutions?
Every single thing that educators recommend besides for this kind of acceleration also exacerbates inequities. If you have an interventionist providing special challenges to a few kids — that’s inequitable. If you give extension work to some kids — that’s inequitable. If only some kids go to a math club after school — that’s inequitable, even if it’s open to all.
Some may balk at my use of “inequitable,” and I get that, because we only tend to use “inequitable” to describe certain things in education. Like, we’re used to a world where some kids learn more and some kids learn less, and that’s not “inequitable” because everybody got a fair (“fair”) chance to learn the same material in class. But just looking at the situation — one person gets one outcome, one kids gets another — that is an inequity. And if you give only some kids a chance to learn e.g. cryptography in an extension worksheet that’s inequitable too.
That’s a long way of saying that I don’t think teachers are ideologically opposed to acceleration, in the sense that teachers don’t like it because it creates inequities.
So why is moving a 1st Grader to a 2nd Grade math class behind a “break in case of emergency” label? I don’t know. Here are two possibilities:
- Schools think it’s educationally risky for students.
- It creates a huge pain in the neck for administrators.
I think both are true, but if you know your way around a school you might also know that a lot of things happen because they solve administrative problems. Which is another way of saying that they help administrators deal with parents.
Especially for younger students, moving to another room might backfire. This is both experientially true (some of my 3rd Graders do much better with consistency and a familiar environment) and also something that seems like it might be starting to trickle through in research. See: “Two studies point to the power of teacher-student relationships to boost learning”.
But I think the more likely explanation is that some parents really, really, really want their kids to be accelerated, even if it’s not appropriate. This is especially true as parents become wealthier, and this is especially true of white parents.
So when a school starts opening up the option for moving up a grade for math, all of the sudden some other parents start calling up the school.
Seriously, so many people in teaching have experienced this situation. Parents talk to a young kid, then (though they’ve seemed totally happy in class up until this point) the kid says, “Hey Mister, I was just wondering if you had any, umm, like extra math? or more challenging stuff? Because sometimes class is too easy for me.”
And a lot of the time it’s…well, it’s a lovely kid, but a kid who wouldn’t be at the top of your “I’M WORRIED THAT THEY’RE NOT CHALLENGED” list.
So what do we do? Anything, as long as we keep it in the classroom. Because as long as it stays in the classroom, the teacher is in charge.
Like Cuban & Tyack say in Tinkering Toward Utopia, classrooms are places that are more safe from outsider touch. At the end of the day, as long as it’s happening in a classroom, it’s sort of invisible from an outside perspective. And this can be bad (see: all the sad stories above) but in a way it can be good — it’s one of the only ways schools have to protect kids from parental demands.
I’m not saying that anyone is doing this on purpose, but there’s a structure to how schools respond to unchallenged kids, and it likely exists for a reason. That reason could be to protect schools from parents pushing their kids ahead against their kids’ needs.
It seems to me that the status quo almost works. If more schools had interventionists who could come in and focus on the needs of the unchallenged, that would be amazing. (Those specialists along with teachers and parents could then decide if a kid would be better off in a different math situation.)
This raises an interesting philosophical question, which is whether schools should spend their money on the needs of kids who aren’t challenged by their grade-level material.
Of course, any “should money get spent” question in education is complicated, since money for something means money away from something else. And a lot of people think that any money for students who are doing well is money that is effectively being taken away from students who are waaaay over-challenged by the curriculum.
But I also think it’s fair to say that, as a matter of funding, as a matter of research, as a matter of journalism, which is to say “in general,” in education we do mostly focus on under-achieving students. I’m not saying that this is wrong — it makes sense for us to focus on kids that are losing the game we made for them — but I think it is true.
There is a group of kids, though, who are unchallenged and as a result school is not working for them. In a lot of situations, these kids don’t have much to do. And if they’re in your classroom, and they present classroom management issues when they’re bored? Good luck with that, teacher.
(The exception is probably high-SES districts where parental demand forces schools to come up with a policies, plus they’re more likely to have resources for handling unchallenged kids who are working above grade level in math or other subjects. The rich get richer, etc.)
So here’s my conclusion:
- If your school has a pile of money sitting around, it might be good to spend it on something like a coach or interventionist who can focus on enrichment.
- If your school is strapped for cash, you might still consider whether it would improve the overall situation by hiring someone who can focus on enrichment. It might improve the classroom situation enough that everyone benefits.
- If you’re a researcher, this might be something interesting to study.
THE END. Your ideas/reactions/questions/challenges/readings/links in the comments, please.