Friday, May 24th

District Debates the Merits of Introducing A High Level Math Course

CalculusA decision to include funding for an additional half time math teacher to teach Multivariable Calculus at Scarsdale High School has engendered debate among parents in the community. What could be the problem with offering more math to talented Scarsdale students? It turns out that it’s not that simple.

The issue is that students who follow the course sequence from middle to high school for the highest level math courses don’t end up in this math course. The current curriculum leads to BC Calculus which is now the highest level math course offered.

In order to take this course, students need to “accelerate” or “double accelerate” their math courses by skipping math in a lower grade so that they can take calculus as a sophomore or a junior and then have time for this new course as a senior. As a student would have had to prepare for this step years ago, only a very few students who accelerated or took summer math courses would be prepared for Multivariable Calculus.

There seems to be no precedent for offering advanced level classes that are not part of a curricular path. In addition, there is no AP test offered for this course.

We reached out to Assistant Superintendent Edgar McIntosh who conferred with SHS Principal Ken Bonamo and sent this response to our questions:

He said, “Multivariable Calculus is currently offered as an online course overseen by our teachers. The proposal to make it an in-person experience was driven by the

1) increased number of students qualified to take it
2) desire to meet our students where they are
3) goal of providing the best possible experience for them

And it is true--there is currently no way to do that without the student studying independently and skipping a lower level of math by taking a placement test. (With or without a tutor, this demonstrates exceptional mathematical aptitude.)

We discussed that this may be seen as a new capstone course in math instead of BC (which is already highly rigorous). The reality is that Multivariable Calculus has already had a place in our catalog. This advanced math course offering has been public for a while- just not in an optimal form.

From an educational angle, we know that creating a "double accelerated track" has its complications. We know of two districts that eventually dismantled that pathway because the long-term data suggested that the "coverage rush" in earlier grades created conceptual gaps that impacted students completing the full cycle and even their interest in continuing in STEM.”

Diane Gurden, a parent of two college aged students sent the following email to the Board of Education expressing her thoughts on this addition to the curriculum:

She wrote:

“1) What is the upside of adding Multivariable Calculus? It seems part of the answer is that other schools have it, so we want to look competitive. Do we also feel that colleges are looking for it? Which schools? How many students do we see taking it?

2) What is the downside of adding Multivariable Calculus? Students will most likely take it again in college because there is no AP test for it and I don't know of a college that will let you test out of a college class because you took a high school class. I do know many schools that let you test out of Calculus 1 and 2 with a 5 (and maybe a 4?) on the AP BC Calculus test, though.

3) What is the path for a student to take Multivariable Calculus? I agree that this is a total rework of the current math curriculum, and impacts SMS, too. Because, now, you have to do Honors Math in 8th grade, then level 4 math for 3 years to get to AT BC Calculus, so there is no path there without taking classes or tutoring outside of SHS, and possibly outside of the regular school year.

4) Will adding Multivariable Calculus water down the transcripts of students who are currently taking AT BC Calculus because they are no longer taking the highest level math class offered? This is a valid question and I would also ask if SHS will guarantee that every dean of an AT BC Calculus student will have a disclaimer added to their recommendation, stating that Multivariable Calculus was recently added as an option and was not available across the board to all students in the current class? How many years will that disclaimer be made?”

Paulina Schwartz, a math teacher and Scarsdale parent had this to say:

“I am against this being offered as an add-on course to the current curriculum. I find it concerning that there is no standard curricular path to Multivariable Calculus, and yet we are being asked to fund it. As taxpayers, we would be paying for the addition of a course that no student has access to unless their parents have taken private measures outside of school to push them ahead of the Scarsdale curriculum. If Scarsdale wants to start funding this course, there needs to be a path to it within the schools, where the teachers are choosing which students qualify, not the parents.

Offering Multivariable Calculus this upcoming September as a last-minute surprise now is completely inequitable. I have spoken to the math chair, Ms. Connelly, and there is no way for current juniors that are now in the highest level offered in Scarsdale to now get into this course no matter what they do. They would have had to plan ahead, having no idea that this announcement was coming.

I also do think that there is valid concern that this will dilute the value of BC Calc or AB Calc on a current student's transcript. Will current students effectively be penalized by colleges for having not taken this course (even though it was not offered to them)? “

And Claudine Gecel, the Former PTC Budget Study Chair, a former institutional investor and the parent of a freshman engineering student pointed out: I love math. Our son also enjoyed it in Scarsdale. And my husband, a physician, also enjoys it. Becoming proficient in math is like becoming proficient in a foreign language. But the pandemic shut-downs have reinforced the vital importance of student mental health. Especially when it comes to tweens and teens. Our son is completely loaded up with advanced math core requirements for his engineering pathway. All the colleges that accepted him, did so because he told them about his leadership skills, not his math scores. And his math scores were excellent. As parents, I think we need to be extra mindful of the social opportunities that teens crave. And are crucial for their development. Better to be out socializing, and learning how to navigate the world, then to be taking college math in high school. Both my husband and I were in classes where the teacher wants you to go farther, faster. It’s not always a good idea, and this is an opinion shared by many."

The Board of Education will vote on the proposed budget that includes the extra math teacher at their meeting on Monday night April 8, 2024.

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