There was a disconnect between what parents are hearing from their children and what teachers were saying about math instruction at a principal’s coffee at Wilton High School on March 6.

About three dozen parents attended the Tuesday morning meeting in the school’s Little Theater, called to discuss the math program in general and concerns about the precalculus program in particular. Discussion centered primarily on precalculus and student-centered learning.

The parents were addressed by a panel composed of Principal Bob O’Donnell, Assistant Principal Greg Theriault, math instructional leader Cindy Cherico, math instructional leader Peg Meurer Tanzman, and K-8 math curriculum coordinator Trudy Denton. A similar meeting took place Thursday evening, March 1, with about 65 parents attending.

O’Donnell admitted the high school’s math performance is lagging. Whereas 96% of Wilton students achieve benchmark scores in English language arts on the Connecticut SAT, only 76% of students do so in math.

The state benchmark for the math SAT is 530 in a student’s junior year, Cherico said. That is the score used to judge if, as a freshman, a student will get a C or better in a college math class.

The issue before the parents was the number of students — many more than expected — struggling with precalculus. To assist them, an after-school program that meets twice a week for one hour was established where they could get extra help. Teachers are also working with groups of students in class. What got the most attention was the “norming” of student grades.

“We normed the grades for precalculus for the second quarter and the mid-term,” Tanzman said. “Historically we looked at grades that a certain percentage of the class we want to have an A, a certain percentage a B and a C and a D. We looked at the current scores by class or by teacher and normed the grades. … What we did was it seemed the kids that needed the norming the most got the most but they didn’t get ridiculous amounts. So somebody might have had a D and they went to a C-. It was done for all of the students, not for any particular student. And we did not do it because we want to look good as a school, because that’s irrelevant. We did it for the students because they are applying to colleges and they’re seniors and they’re in this situation that they did not create and we needed to help them.”

One parent asked if the students still don’t know the material.

“The teachers are continuing to work with the students on whatever material they feel they need help on,” Cherico said. “I can’t tell you how many hours these teachers have put in trying to do what’s best for these kids.”

O’Donnell said he believes that with the after-school program and efforts teachers are making, “the kids will be OK in the long run and ready for calc.” Students are feeling better about the class than they had been, he said.

Going forward:

  • The after-school program will continue.

  • There will be continued collaboration among precalculus and algebra 2 teachers so students will be better prepared.

  • There will be a review of the recommendation process so students will be recommended for courses where they are likely to be successful.

  • College Algebra and Trigonometry — currently known as Math Modeling — will be offered for students not ready for precalculus.

  • The override process will be discouraged.

Student-centered learning

Cherico explained how a student-centered math lesson works.

A question is posed with multiple-entry points, meaning every student can find something to work on and it can be made challenging for students who get the basics.

Students work in groups, teachers monitor group discourse, teachers question students, and students present to other students.

“It’s a great format which is really developing that critical thinking skill we want forming in kids,” she said.

Some parents disagreed, saying the format is not working for their children and asking why more traditional methods of teaching are not used.

One parent asked if the task that’s been posed to students has already been taught. Cherico said, “sometimes,” depending on whether it is introducing a unit or if it is in the middle of a unit.

Tanzman jumped in and said most tasks proposed are those built on prior learning.

“There’s a lot of research around student-centered instruction and how using deliberate tasks actually motivates learning,” she said.

Another parent said, “It’s not just a problem at the high school. I’ve seen it at the middle school and the high school. My kids will come home and they’ll say, ‘Well, the teacher put something on the board and we have no idea how to do it.’ What the kids would like is if the teacher would be with them in class and show them examples of how to get something done in class and then go home at night and work on it to try and perfect it in their mind instead of having the kid teach themself. Because many times kids come home and now the parents or the tutors come over and show them how to get something done because the background at Middlebrook wasn’t solid enough to carry through to the high school.”

Tanzman said in her precalculus after-school program on Monday the students were working on a problem that could be solved with formulas. “I said, ‘I don’t know formulas because I just figure it out looking at it. It’s dimensional analysis. … It’s converting from one thing to another thing.’ I said, ‘So I can look at it individually, I go from here to here and make sure I know where I’m going and start with and what I need to get there, and that’s what I had them thinking yesterday.’”

These are the students who are not getting the questions on the test, she said, because the formula is not coming to them.

“So many times my kid comes home and she says, ‘They didn’t teach me anything,’ so my husband has to take an hour every night with the kids and go over what they need to know in the math class. Plus the tutor,” another parent said. “Try and get a parking space at the library after school. It’s insane because everybody’s being tutored.”

“I think what’s being said here is some kids are not being prepared,” another parent offered.

Students are not being left at sea, Cherico insisted. “As the kids are working in their groups, the teachers are walking up and down looking for errors,” she said. On other days, teachers will teach the skills needed. “It’s a mix,” she said.

“Students may not always know the steps they have to take, but they’re thinking about it and talking about it,” Theriault said.

“Are you aware from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. they’re all on Facetime in their little groups trying to figure things out and they’re often leading each other astray?” another parent asked. “It’s all wonderful but there’s room for error as well.”

“People don’t come here to supplement their education,” another parent said. “They don’t come here for a great education and then they have to do all these extra tutors, Khan Academy [online SAT prep], go work with their friends till midnight on Facetime. So I don’t think asking our kids, who are already in a high-stress environment, to ask them to do more. … Why did we get to this point where they don’t know their foundations?”

Is there a correlation between the problems students are having and the new teaching methods being used, specifically coaching and student-centered learning? she asked.

Her question was not directly addressed by the panel. After a few more comments, O’Donnell thanked the parents for attending and the meeting dispersed.