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Why Virginia Eliminating Accelerated Math Courses is GOOD for your High Achiever

Updated: Feb 29

Y’all, parents are in an absolute uproar about the proposed changes taking place in Virginia in regards to accelerated math courses. You may be one of them! This post is for you! I have had three amazing discussions with friends who have reached out to me so far since the news broke a few days ago, so I figured I may as well write a blog on it.

To start, I will say that I AM in 100% support of this move, and I am also in 100% support of parents who are worried about their high achieving children getting the education they deserve. And that is not a dichotomy. I believe this change is better for ALL students, especially high achievers!

I am a certified math specialist through 8th grade but work primarily with elementary students. Part of my job is to make sure I am adequately preparing my students for secondary mathematics. To do that, I need to have a good understanding of what students are expected to know, understand, and do in secondary. I have very intentionally taken a lot of time to develop my understanding of what is needed to be successful in secondary mathematics as I have not taught as much secondary math, and since my own secondary math education was…well…inadequate.

I’ll tell my story, and as I do, I wonder how many of you have had similar experiences. I was always a high achiever in school. I graduated at the top of my class. I had a full academic scholarship for college. I did the dang speech at my high school graduation. I loved learning and most of my classes…except the math classes! I hated my math classes with a passion because I always felt stupid in them and I never felt like I learned anything I could actually use.

All I really remember is trying to memorize steps long enough to pass the unit test, praying that I would be able to retain enough of this random meaningless procedural information to make it to the next course. Oh, and also worrying about my teachers finding out that I wasn’t really as smart as my grades made me look. I left every math class with a sigh of relief that I made it through, but never feeling like I understood math anymore than I did before I started the class. I got good grades in all of my math classes, so I must have been good at math right?

Not really. I was good at getting good grades.

I bet my teachers probably thought I LOVED math because I was such a good student if you just looked at my grades. But the truth is, I absolutely hated my math classes. I am a connector, not a memorizer. I like to think and reason and problem solve. I like to know WHY I am doing what I am doing. If I’m not understanding the WHY, I’m bored. I hate being bored.

Not to mention I have to work ten times as hard to retain all those meaningless steps.

I will also let you know that in middle school if you asked me what I would like to do when I grew up, I would tell you a teacher. But that wasn’t really my first choice. That was my fallback, because I didn’t think I had what it took to do the stuff I really wanted to do. I wanted to be an engineer, a scientist, or an architect. Really.

I settled on teaching because I loved learning so much and I didn’t think I could handle the advanced math those careers required. In fact, I knew I couldn’t handle them. I knew myself better than my teachers did. I remember when I chose to take discrete math my senior year instead of AP Stat or AP Calc. I remember being pulled into the hallway by a guidance counselor who I had never spoken to before and had no relationship with. I remember her getting in my face, pointing her finger at me, and telling me that by choosing not to do the AP math my senior year I was ruining my chances of making it into college. I remember being shocked, and I felt like she was accusing me of being lazy or unmotivated. Neither of which were true. But at the time, I did not know how to articulate to her that I knew what I was doing and what was best for me more than she did. I just felt attacked. I was so embarrassed I went back in class AS A SENIOR, and tried to hide my tears!

So here’s the deal, when high achieving students are placed on accelerated tracts in secondary, it does not help them develop as mathematicians. Instead, accelerated tracts are actually doing them a disservice.

In an effort to claim that we are differentiating to meet the needs of high achievers, schools just consolidate multiple years of math and “teach” these courses at a faster pace. The problem is, there is too much content, and by consolidating classes and “teaching” them at a faster pace, we steal time away from actually being able to dig deep and understand the underlying math concepts that students are supposed to learn in Algebra and Geometry.

Teachers have to rush to “cover” multiple years worth of math in a year, which leads to lots of the math being excluded and skipped over all together. There is no time for exploration, developing deep conceptual understanding, and no time for making connections, or being creative problem solvers. It turns into teaching kids how to pass a standardized test. That is literally all I remember.

I also remember that any math class I got a B in rather than an A was a class where the teacher included real world application problems that I literally had no idea how to do. I had no idea how to do math unless it looked exactly like how my teachers taught me in school. I couldn’t think for myself. I couldn’t use flexible strategies. I had absolutely no knowledge of the huge underlying concepts and big ideas of mathematics. I thought algebra was all about finding X. I wondered where X actually was in real life, and how any of this would ever be used outside of the classroom. I decided that if the careers I was really interested in required a lot of finding this elusive X, then those just were not the careers for me.

For the record, Algebra is amazing and is absolutely not about finding X. It’s so much more than that. I want to go back and take high school Algebra again with an amazing teacher just for fun. I actually liked Geometry because it was visual and I am a visual learner. I never realized that Algebra and Geometry could be used at the same time; that they were connected. I do not remember any visuals used ever in my Algebra classes. Not until I was studying to become a math specialist. That’s when it finally all made sense to me!

So I have talked about myself for a long time, not because it’s all about me, but because my story is not very different from many many high achieving students in secondary school. I also want to point out that the way I experienced “math” in secondary school was not really math at all. I never learned real math over all those years. You can’t say you learned math if you are not able to actually use and apply what you have learned to real life situations. Due to this, my experience made my dreams of becoming an engineer, scientist, or architect impossible. It wasn’t just a lack of confidence. I literally did not have the deep conceptual understandings I needed to do higher level math because teachers did not have time to teach deep. The fake math I learned in secondary school ELIMINATED my chances of accessing the future STEM career I dreamed of.

My story is FAR from unique. I know parents of high achievers may be worried because they may see these changes as dumbing down the curriculum in order to give other kids “who can’t handle it” a chance. When these changes are being implemented in the name of equity it makes well meaning parents wonder if equity is actually a good thing at all! After all, their high achieving students are already bored in math class!

But here’s the thing, by stopping this accelerated tracking mess, not only are we going to be able to give so many more students the ability to access higher level mathematics, and therefore access to careers that require the ability to UNDERSTAND higher level mathematics…but we will finally have the chance to give high achieving students what they actually deserve.

By choosing NOT to rush through important concepts, teachers will have more time to develop deep conceptual understandings of the big ideas required for true understanding of secondary mathematics. Your high achiever will have the opportunity to learn and explore mathematics in such a rich way. They will be able to problem solve, reason, and make connections between Algebra, Geometry, and Statistics…because it will now be possible for teachers to design their courses to allow for exactly that. There are ways to differentiate instruction to ensure all learners are challenged without racing through everything. This change will allow educators the opportunity to make math engaging, interesting, and fun for high achievers. At the same time, these changes will ALSO help make higher level math accessible for students who may not have had the same opportunities high achievers had to even become high achievers in the first place.

If parents really knew how little real math their kids actually learned in school, they would be OUTRAGED. Please keep in mind that this decision has been made after years and years of study, research, and discussion between people who are actually experts in math education. This is actually how they teach math in countries who have the most high achieving math students! I say it all the time, learning deep is so much more beneficial than memorizing and regurgitating quickly. The latter does not, in any way, prepare someone for using math in their career.

I have never met a parent who has said…yes I use the math I learned in high school in my job all the time! In fact, I have not spoken to an adult yet that can tell me any of the big ideas they learned in Algebra or Geometry. Why? Probably because they didn’t actually learn them.

Claiming that we are differentiating for high achievers by moving them faster through math ensures that they only develop a shallow understanding rather than the deep understandings they are completely capable of learning. It is cheating them. They have been doing your kids wrong all along, and now they are trying to actually fix it. This is a good thing.

I know that new is unfamiliar, and unfamiliar is uncomfortable. And I know that after a year of pandemic teaching, another big change like this seems like throwing lighter fluid on an already blazing fire. But the truth is, there is no better time to make major changes in math than right now. It’s time to reimagine and make big changes that will allow students to build the understandings they will need to be globally competitive, because that’s what they will need to be in the jobs of the future. With the advances in technology, if we can’t ensure that our students have the skills needed for the careers of the future, it is way too easy to pay for the skills of people in other countries who have been teaching it better all along.

Here’s a perspective from an amazing secondary educator for you to check out as well. Be sure as you are researching to consider the source of the information in regards to this topic!

Our kids CAN DO THIS. This move is better for ALL kids, ESPECIALLY your high achieving student who is always bored in math class!

Now is the time to ask all the questions. And now is the time to INVEST in supports for teachers to help them make this important transition smooth for all involved, and it will involve all of us! Elementary included! SumOneCares is here to support schools and teachers in developing those deep understandings to better prepare our students for the future. It is our mission to do everything possible to ensure that not another student loses access to the future they desire due to inadequate and damaging educational practices.

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