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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Overrides and Levels

In our system, students are placed in math levels at sixth grade. There are both positive and questionable attributes related to this.

On the positive side, there are a number of good reasons for doing this. First of all for students who are devoted to their math study and substantially ahead of the others, the leveling gives them a group of peers who share similar interests and pacing when it comes to math learning. These quick, math-directed learners sometimes don't get the attention they deserve in big, heterogeneous classes. These students often don't fit the mainstream social profile either since many of these students prefer their studies to the playful banter and games on the playground. So in a sense, being able to learn in a fast-paced, enrichment level provides a kind of scholarly haven for those students. Similarly students who struggle greatly with math learning for a large number of reasons also find a haven-like quality to the extra-help level, a level with less students, more help, and greater attention to each child's individual learning style, needs, and supports. As for those placed in the typical grade-level group, these students do very well over time. They are typically students who learn well and will continue to receive a strong, holistic math program.

On the questionable side of math grouping is that it's not a perfect science. Children develop in multiple ways at multiple times, and because a child is very strong at one point and less strong at another should not label them as enrichment, grade-level, or needing extra help. There are multiple factors that impact a child's learning development, and we want to make sure that we don't label students too soon so we want to be sensitive to this. Overall when taking a systemwide look, there's little evidence of students' losing positivity or feeling labeled since the students tend to change levels up and down throughout sixth to twelfth grade, and almost every students performs well in math by the end of high school thus pointing to the success of the system overall.

With all of this in mind, the system does give parents the last word when it comes to math levels. Any parent can override the level proposed and choose a level they think is better. Parents typically override when their children fall on the border of one level and another--at times like these parents question what's best for their children and engage with teachers in that conversation. It's a case-by-case decision making process since no two children are the same and what's right for one may not be the right choice for another. Thankfully we have lots of formal and informal data to share with families as they consider the choice to override. I am never worried when a parent questions a child's level since I believe that parents know their children well and that children themselves have a good sense of whom they are and what they are willing to invest in. As a parent, I've overridden a teacher's leveling decision on a couple of occasions, and in both cases, I felt I made the right choice. My choices were based on who my children were and the level of support I could provide my children at the time in question.

As we think of leveling and overrides, what's most important is that we're transparent about the issues related to the decision and that we have the best long term interests of a child in mind. It's also important to point out that in the scheme of things, this decision is a small matter and one that can be easily changed if it doesn't work out. Onward.