Many 13-year-old boys may be spending their summer lost in a digital world, building imaginary structures and waging war against zombie pigmen and other fictitious monsters that threaten in cyberspace.
But Josh Liberman, about to start eighth grade at Walter S. Parker Middle School in Reading, has spent the past few weeks obsessed with foes of a very different kind. His chief adversaries: the Pythagorean theorem, the distributive law, and linear equations.
Liberman was shuttled to and from Andover twice a week for grueling 2½-hour math lessons, in hopes of doing well enough on a placement exam to bypass the school district’s regular Grade 8 math course.
Reading is one of the first districts statewide to redesign its math curriculum to align with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, preparation for national English and math tests for public school students. However, the change has drawn protests from a number of parents.
The district has adopted a new sequence that leaves more than 80 percent of eighth-graders without a direct path to a high school calculus course. Only 18 percent will be enrolled in algebra 1, compared with 60 percent to 65 percent in previous years, according to Craig Martin, Reading’s assistant superintendent for learning and teaching.
Changes are sure to come in other school districts, Martin added. He attributed the protests in Reading to the district being “ahead of the curve on this.”
For Liberman, falling short on the placement exam could force him to rethink his career plans.
“I’m thinking of becoming a scientist, like my dad,” said Liberman, whose father is a physicist. But such plans would likely require the soft-spoken teenager to take calculus in high school, and unless he does well on the placement exams, Liberman will be on an academic track that doesn’t lead directly to such high-level math.
The Common Core program, promoted by President Obama and supported by the Gates Foundation, is lauded by proponents as a national, standardized measure that will make it easier to evaluate the various approaches embraced by school districts and to foster classroom innovation.
But a number of critics, including Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute of Public Policy Research in Boston, have voiced concerns about the cost of implementation, and the adverse impact that Common Core might have on local school districts.
In all, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted Common Core, Massachusetts in 2010.
Now, debate over the efficacy of the new standards is taking center stage in Reading, believed to be one of the first districts in Massachusetts to revise its math sequence. Some parents have said they plan to attend a joint meeting of the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen on Aug. 26 in hopes of convincing them to reconsider changes to the math course options.
They have expressed concern that the school system’s departure from the traditional math sequence, which required a majority of students to take algebra 1 in eighth grade, may leave little room for a high school calculus class, a requirement at many colleges for acceptance into a science or engineering undergraduate program.
“Many parents just don’t see the justification for this,” said Marianne Downing, one of the parents critical of the change. “If a child is getting A’s in math, why can’t he master this harder math? Why shouldn’t he take algebra in eighth grade?”
Martin said the new state frameworks for math are more rigorous than the previous ones, shifting many standards to earlier grade levels. For example, algebra 1 now incorporates many standards that had previously been taught in algebra 2, and more than half the standards that had been taught in algebra 1 are now included in the regular eighth-grade curriculum.
Due to this shift to higher standards, Martin said, “Fewer students this year possessed the readiness to immediately enter’’ the new sequence.
According to Lauren Greene, spokeswoman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Reading is not alone.
“Due to the more rigorous algebra framework, some districts are choosing to reassess their curriculum plans,” said Greene. She said that state education officials were aware of Reading’s curriculum decisions, and noted that the district has “outlined multiple pathways for students to get to calculus by their senior year.”
For students, like Liberman, who were not assigned to the highest math track, the district has several options, such as passing a placement exam, doubling up on math classes in ninth or 10th grades, or enrolling in a summer geometry class, which Martin said will be offered starting next year.
But those options are unacceptable in the eyes of some parents.
“My main concern is that all of a sudden it’s no longer the case that the majority of kids get algebra in middle school and calculus in high school,” said Liberman’s mother, Rebecca, who has been an outspoken critic of the new math course options. “It’s so hard to get accepted to a good college. I don’t think we should be throwing up roadblocks. There needs to be a path open to students who don’t test into the highest track.”
She has started a petition that calls on the district to provide more math options that would give a majority of middle school students a direct pathway to taking calculus in high school, such as condensed courses that combine two years’ worth of standards, and extra academic support for students who enroll in them. So far, 50 people have signed it.
The petition also asks Reading school officials to delay implementation of the new teaching methods until Common Core textbooks are available. Last school year, she noted, her son did not have a math textbook.
According to Martin, textbooks are “a 20th-century concept.” Teachers are now “finding their own resources and putting them on the website for students to access,” he said. “In almost every curriculum area, the investment districts used to make in textbooks is beginning to change.”
Superintendent John F. Doherty, who has been an educator in Reading for 26 years, said he and the parents who have questioned the new math course sequence share the same goals. “It’s just a question of how best to get there,” he said.
“This is not at all an effort to reduce the number of kids who have access to the higher level math classes. In fact, it’s the opposite,” Doherty said.
“The challenge is the kids who find themselves in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade during the transition,” said Martin. “They didn’t benefit from having this new sequence in the lower grades.”
An update on the district’s plans will be coming this fall, Doherty said.
Meanwhile, Josh Liberman is spending the waning days of his summer break hitting the books, hoping to master a year’s worth of standards in a matter of weeks. It’s a challenge fewer than 10 Reading students are tackling, Martin said.
Heading into the first of two placement exams last week, a nervous Liberman shared his strategy: “I’m going to do the easiest problems first, so I don’t get stuck on hard problems and waste my time. Then, I’ll do the ones I know I can do but take a little longer. And then I’ll go back to the hard problems.”
Brenda J. Buote can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.