New curriculum: Math anxiety for students, teachers

“In my classes, I have 60 kids and only 17 are passing. You know how stressful that is on me?” said Donna Aker, a veteran math teacher at South Gwinnett High School.

It’s a problem common to many metro Atlanta schools. Nearly one in five ninth-graders in metro Atlanta last year got an F in Math I — the first year of the state’s new math curriculum in high school.

The math failure rate was more than double that experienced by the same group of kids in the eighth grade the year before.

The tougher curriculum is already forcing some of the area’s better students to reconsider signing on for another year of bench-pressing binomials. Some switched to general math their sophomore year, afraid of getting another low grade.

‘Used to being good at math'

Jessica O’Brien was a straight A student with hopes of going to Harvard University.

Those hopes grew a little dimmer after she got a D in math as a ninth-grader. She opted out of the accelerated program.

“I’m worried I’m going to almost fail again,” said Jessica, now a sophomore and cheerleader at Campbell High in Smyrna. “I’m so used to being good at math.”

Jessica’s mother, Susan O’Brien, backed her all the way.

“Kids are failing left and right, I’m talking your high achievers who never fail,” said O’Brien, who is concerned about Jessica’s shot at Harvard. “My daughter loved math and had been on the math team but only got out with a D in Accelerated Math II. My biggest fear is that it is going to hurt her when she applies for college.”

Starting with the Class of 2012, every Georgia student must pass four years of math to receive a college prep diploma even if he or she plans to attend a technical school or enter the work force after graduation. Special needs students can appeal to opt out after completing Math III if they stay concurrently enrolled in math support classes and a review of their education plan makes it clear that the course would be the highest level they could achieve.

Aker says the program is so accelerated that upperclassmen who used to help her tutor can’t do the math the freshmen do.

“The algebra in Math I is as advanced as what I was teaching to students in Algebra II junior year,” she said. “Some of my juniors in the National Honor Society and Beta Club haven’t even learned it yet.”

When the state initiated this new era of souped-up instruction in math, pushing students to grasp complex concepts in algebra, geometry and statistics sooner than ever before, the goal was to produce a new generation of college-ready teens to compete globally.

By prolonging the exposure of all students to complex math, the state expected to help increase Georgia’s average SAT score, which ranks near the bottom among states.

“On the SAT, when we looked at all of the kids who have taken math at different levels, we found that even our high achievers are still performing below the rest of the country,” said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. “Our kids are just as smart as any other kids. They need to be able to compete with students around the world for jobs and college.”

Hard on students, teachers

The math overhaul was pushed by state Superintendent Kathy Cox. Now that Cox has announced she will not seek a third term, some parents and teachers wonder whether the program will continue at the same accelerated pace, be diluted or scrapped altogether by her successor.

For students, the program got off to a rough start.

In 2009, nearly 20,100 failing grades were handed out to high school freshmen in Georgia — about 17 percent of all grades given in the new Math I course. That’s more than double the percentage of failing grades given in the eighth-grade preparatory class the previous year, according to state statistics obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In metro Atlanta, nearly 19 percent of Math I grades were F’s.

It’s also tough on teachers, including some who say they were not properly trained to teach the new content.

“You have to cover everything. It’s a lesson a day,” said Aker, who is co-president of the Gwinnett County Association of Educators. “There is no time to get them to master each section.”

Janet Davis, the state’s math program manager, believes that “as students, teachers and parents become more comfortable with this curriculum we will see the scores increase.”

“The new curriculum is giving our students an opportunity to do more math than they have ever done in the past, do it in a more meaningful way and to understand how that math is used in the real world,” Davis said.

The Cobb County School District has, perhaps, done the best in metro Atlanta under the accelerated curriculum, scoring the highest rate of A’s in Math I .

James Pratt, the school system’s high school math supervisor, credits the success to support classes where struggling students can spend more time going over the complexities of graphing square roots and rational expressions.

Cobb also beefed up tutoring and launched programs like Parent Math Night so teachers could explain lessons to parents.

When the Class of 2012 hit its freshman year, several local tutoring companies saw a spike in business. Now, this year’s freshmen are following them to places like Kumon and Sylvan Learning for refreshers on math basics.

At Sylvan in Snellville, Mikera Gordon, a ninth-grader at Grayson High used to making A’s, sat down with a teacher to get homework help. “I don’t like math, it’s too challenging,” Mikera said. “The teacher never really has time to answer questions, so I just don’t ask.”

Working on the basics

For those who can’t afford outside tutoring, support classes like those offered in Cobb are helping some students.

At Mill Creek High, Camille Larkin acts as a safety net. The teacher of 21 years follows their grades in Math I and calls parents, leaving her cellphone number if she learns a student is falling behind or cutting math class. “We spend time on the basics,” she said. “I preview lessons they are going to struggle with [so] they can actively participate ... instead of sitting passively lost. Some of them just need a confidence boost.”

At Duluth High, the 2009 math grades concerned principal Jason Lane so much that he developed a plan to give 100 select freshmen flexible block schedules next fall so they can have 90 minutes of math instruction instead of 52 and earn more credits.

Now, as students take End of Course tests, the state will soon have its first progress report on how well students are performing under the increased demand.

Aker says the state should consider spreading Math I and Math II over four years to give students more time to understand them. “To have every child take this math, those who aren’t going to college, those who are special ed in self-contained classrooms, to me feels like a conspiracy on how to make kids fail.”

Davis, the state’s math director, however, says she is “pleased” with early results from End of Course tests given in December 2009 to students on block schedules taking Math I. Overall, 61 percent met or exceeded standards in Algebra I and 65 percent met or exceeded them in geometry, which is slightly better than under the old curriculum. Students still learning English, however, performed better under the old curriculum. She is counting on exam scores as well as SAT scores to improve over time as students move through school. The Class of 2019 will be the first to have had the accelerated math exposure from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“I can’t see a benefit of offering a math program a student couldn’t use to go to college, technical [school] or the workplace,” Davis said. “... What we are giving our students who struggle is an opportunity to feel as successful as our students who are mathematically talented.”

How did the math performance of students change between 2008 and 2009?

2008: A's, 21 percent; F's 6 percent

2009: A's 15 percent;  F's 14 percent

* In fall 2008, nearly 17,500 students were required to take learning support in math at the college level, according to officials at the Georgia Board of Regents.

How to help your child survive Math I, II, III and IV

One teacher’s advice:

Have your child show you his homework and explain it to you the best he can. Then make a list of questions for the teacher the next day.

Have an older sibling or student tutor just do the homework with him.

Studying should not be just the night before a test. Every night there should be some math being done, even if it is review.

Do not assume your high schooler doesn’t need you; in fact, he needs you even more. Do not let a day go by that you don’t discuss in depth each class and happenings at school.

Math ability is not hereditary. If you couldn’t do math, don’t assume your child can’t. Every student can learn; it just takes practice and time.

Math is like football. You have to learn the “plays” and then practice them over and over again. Practice is what makes math easier.

For younger children, drill the multiplication facts up to 20. Make it a travel game or whatever. It is the foundation of all higher math.

Have a set time your child will study, regardless of how much homework he has. Make it a priority.

Review all tests and correct any wrong answers.

Communicate with the teacher often.

Source: South Gwinnett High School math teacher Donna Aker

10 metro Atlanta schools with highest percentage of A’s in Accelerated Math I

DeKalb County, DeKalb Early College Academy: 100*

DeKalb County, McNair High School: 100*

Fayette County, Whitewater High School: 68

Gwinnett County, Gwinnett InterVention Education (GIVE) Center West: 66.7

Fulton County, TEACH Charter High School: 61.5

Fulton County, Milton High School: 61

Fulton County, Chattahoochee High School: 60.6

Cherokee County, Sequoyah High School: 59.1

Fayette County, Fayette County High School: 56.3

Fulton County, Alpharetta High School: 56.1

* DeKalb Early College Academy and McNair High each only reported one student taking the class, according to state data.

10 metro Atlanta schools with the highest percentage of F’s in Accelerated Math I

Gwinnett County, Gwinnett InterVention Education (GIVE) Center East: 100*

DeKalb County, Clarkston High School: 47.8

Atlanta, Therrell School of Engineering, Math, and Science: 26.8

Cobb County, South Cobb High School: 26.6

DeKalb County, Lithonia High School: 23.1

DeKalb County, Tucker High School: 20.4

DeKalb County, Chamblee Charter High School: 17.5

Clayton County, Riverdale High School: 16.7

DeKalb County, Stone Mountain High School: 16.4

Atlanta, School of Health Sciences and Research at Carver: 16

* GIVE only reported one student taking the class, according to state data.

First in the system

The Class of 2012 will be the first to graduate under the accelerated curriculum in math. A snapshot of their grades freshman year in 2009:

Statewide data for students in New Math Curriculum


% A’s    

% failing grades   

 % C’s or better

Math I-Algebra / Geometry / Statistics  




Math II-Geometry / Algebra II / Statistics  




Accelerated Math I-Geometry / Algebra II /Statistics  




Accelerated Math II-Advanced Algebra/Geometry / Statistics    




The grades were retrieved from a data file provided by the state Department of Education. Where there wasn’t a letter grade, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used the following traditional grading system to analyze the data: 90-100, A; 80-89, B; 70-79, C; 60-69, D; below 60, F.

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