Even for bright stu­dents, ad­vanced classes aren’t al­ways the best way for­ward

The Washington Post - - EDUCATION - jay.math­[email protected]­post.com Jay Math­ews

Amy Tschudin and her hus­band said okay when their son’s fifth­grade teacher in Mont­gomery County sug­gested he skip a grade of math. They were flat­tered by the teacher’s judg­ment, even though their son was a B stu­dent. Within two years, he had lost so much con­fi­dence in his math abil­ity that his par­ents had him moved back.

In sev­enth grade, they said they re­sisted putting him in a ninth-grade for­eign lan­guage course. The school’s re­sponse: “Don’t you want your child to learn a lan­guage?” They re­lented. Again, he strug­gled. The pres­sure was on again in high school, with the em­pha­sis on honors and Ad­vanced Place­ment cour­ses.

Wash­ing­ton-area high schools are among the most chal­leng­ing in the coun­try. I have of­ten praised them for hav­ing the high­est AP and In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate test par­tic­i­pa­tion rates in the na­tion. Tschudin chides me for that. “I feel that ac­cel­er­a­tion has harmed more than helped ed­u­ca­tion­ally,” she said. “I would much rather have him gain­ing a solid foun­da­tion of knowl­edge and earn­ing A’s and B’s than sur­viv­ing with C’s and D’s in these push classes.”

Tschudin was one of sev­eral par­ents who con­tacted me after my re­cent col­umn about a stu­dent in Loudoun County whose coun­selor put him down for four AP cour­ses his ju­nior year when the stu­dent had re­quested none. They think the pref­er­ence of many teach­ers, par­ents, stu­dents and ob­servers like me for col­lege-level cour­ses in high school ig­nores the in­di­vid­ual needs and strengths of their chil­dren, which they know bet­ter than any­body else.

Lissa Costa, also a Mont­gomery County par­ent, was as­ton­ished at how dif­fi­cult it was to get her ninth-grade daugh­ter out of an AP U.S. His­tory course that was at that point too tough for her. “She put 20 hours into the class,” Costa said, “but still failed the first weekly test. Work­ing with her, I could clearly tell the text­book was be­yond her read­ing level. I’m a for­mer teacher. She re­quested a class change, but both her coun­selor and her teacher told her it would get eas­ier if she stuck with it.”

Costa got the same an­swer when she re­quested the change. After an­other 20 hours of work and an­other failed test, she tried again. No luck. Costa said the school switched her daugh­ter to an honors class only after she de­manded a meet­ing with the grade-level prin­ci­pal.

Schools spokesman Derek G. Turner said: “Over many years, [Mont­gomery County] stu­dents and teach­ers have con­sis­tently shown that when stu­dents take on the chal­lenge of ad­vanced cour­ses for the first time and proper sup­ports and in­struc­tional prac­tices are in place, stu­dents do well. While schools may ag­gres­sively re­cruit stu­dents for these op­por­tu­ni­ties and work to fos­ter a sense of be­long­ing, the aca­demic load must be per­son­al­ized for each in­di­vid­ual stu­dent. . . . We also must pay close at­ten­tion to stu­dent well-be­ing, stress and anx­i­ety as they bal­ance these mul­ti­ple de­mands in a chang­ing world.”

An­other Mont­gomery County par­ent said her daugh­ter, a sev­enth-grader, was placed in an eighth-grade-level math class. When the par­ents in­quired, the child’s sixth-grade math teacher said she had been re­quired to pick some stu­dents to skip sev­enth-grade math. “She chose the kids with the best grades,” the mother said, “even though she didn’t nec­es­sar­ily think they would be suc­cess­ful skip­ping a full year of math.”

“After a month,” the mother said, “we forced the school to move her back down, after a lot of tears and her telling us that she would never get into col­lege be­cause she wasn’t in the ac­cel­er­ated math track.”

That emo­tional re­ac­tion wor­ries par­ents. They hear stu­dents in grade-level classes re­fer to them­selves as “stupid” or “not a math per­son.” They won­der why schools don’t show more ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the dif­fer­ing paces of young lives.

Cindy Har­groves re­called that her daugh­ter was not an honors or AP stu­dent. She took less rig­or­ous ver­sions of her last four re­quired cour­ses her se­nior year. That was only two class pe­ri­ods a day, so she en­rolled in two North­ern Vir­ginia Com­mu­nity Col­lege cour­ses in the fall and two in the spring. She grad­u­ated from high school with no AP classes, but 12 col­lege cred­its. “I don’t be­lieve ev­ery child needs to take AP classes or be pres­sured to take them,” she said.

Kids ma­ture at dif­fer­ent rates. Costa’s daugh­ter, who had so much trou­ble with AP in ninth grade, did well in the AP cour­ses she took in 11th and 12th grade.

I think ed­u­ca­tors at these schools have done a good job giv­ing teenagers more than Amer­ica’s usu­ally me­diocre ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards. But they should be lis­ten­ing care­fully when par­ents say their child is not yet ready for that load.

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