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Math Department Concerned by High Failure Rates

Photograph by Samuel Heller

A large number of Berkeley High School (BHS) students are failing the standard Math classes, Math 1, 2, and 3. According to a recent report issued by the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), in the 2018 spring semester, 28 percent of students received a D or an F in Math 1, 27 percent received a D or an F in Math 2, and 21 percent received a D or an F in Math 3. This high rate of failure is troubling to parents and students, as well as some teachers, especially since low and non-passing grades can have a big influence on college and career paths.

One of the reasons for the poor student performance may be the introduction of a new math program. In the fall of 2015, the BHS math department implemented a new Common Core based curriculum called the Mathematics Vision Project (MVP). While the MVP curriculum is centered around student-driven learning, many students feel that the materials do not offer enough explanation and guidance for them to be successful.

Though the transition to a new curriculum may be contributing to poor student performance, there are other challenges that likely are at the root of this problem. Among the obstacles faced by the math department, is a wide range of difference in middle school preparation among the ninth graders, and a lack of resources to make up for those differences. Many math teachers at BHS teach five classes or more classes each day and are thus responsible for 150 plus students each semester. This makes it hard for them to pinpoint areas for which students may not yet be prepared, and to provide individual attention to students who need extra help. While some teachers offer after school help, many students do not, or cannot, utilize this. This situation creates a cycle which is hard to break and often leaves teachers as well as students frustrated. Additionally, due to the large volume of students, many math teachers do not have time to collaborate with each other. They are left unable to consider improvements, communicate with parents or proactively make adjustments to the Math 1-3 curriculum as they implement it in their classroom.

Kori Austera and Monique Duncan-Harris, the co-lead teachers of the math department, also found these to be confounding issues in math classes at BHS. Both agreed that targeted support during the school day was an area in which the math department was lacking. They also suggested that differing levels of preparation in elementary and middle schools created classes with a wide range of math abilities. While the hiring of more teachers or aides is limited due to budget restrictions,  the math department has  released a variety of other efforts, including creating their own website with supplemental information about the Math 1-3 classes, as well information about their approach to teaching math. 

In response to these problems, Donna Storey, a former BHS parent, started a new web resource in February 2018. “The Berkeley High Parent Advocate originally dealt with the complaint process, math and the problem of finding long-term substitute teachers,” said Storey. However, “it soon became clear that math was the main area of concern for the community,” she added. 

Samuel Heller

In the same spirit, two other parents, Elisabeth Ross and Zeph Landau, partnered to create a comprehensive web resource to help foster student success in the MVP curriculum. 

Many students are struggling with the lack of worked out examples, definitions, and summaries. Current Math 3 student and junior in Berkeley International High School, Clara Raedecker described this gap. “Often times the class has been left on its own to figure out concepts,” she said. “This ‘teach yourself’ approach can make students feel like they don’t understand what is going on.” The Math Assist website, created by  Landau, a parent liaison for the parent group aims to fix this. “Though I liked the approach of the teaching materials, it felt to me that within the written materials, there were some missing pieces and it would be hard for a student who didn’t get things the first time to get enough footing to be able to catch up either by themselves or even with the support of a parent,” said Landau. 

The parent group also runs Math Party, a free tutoring program for BHS math students on Sundays at Sports Basement, which offers students the chance to do work or study for tests with the help of retired BHS teachers, tutors, and professors. The group serves as a connection between the math department and parents, hosting meetings every few months to give parents the opportunity to better understand the departments’ plans. The hope is that these meetings will help provide more transparency for parents about how their kids are being taught math, as well as allow teachers to gain a better understanding of what could be improved. Storey also addressed the vitality of good relationships between teachers and their students. “The teacher-student relationship is a partnership and it works best when respect and responsibility go in both directions,” said Storey.

In an effort to improve Math 1-3 classes, the BHS math department has released a variety of efforts, including creating their own website with supplemental information about the Math 1-3 classes, as well as information about their approach to teaching math. 

However, these numbers may not just be a problem at BHS. “There is a struggle with math education nationwide and to my knowledge, no one has come up with solutions that can be implemented at the scale of a large public high school,” said Landau.