Math Academy in expansion, could be a future model of accelerated learning
That was in 2013. Their little program was quickly embraced by Pasadena Public Schools Superintendent Brian McDonald, a former accountant and math teacher. When I came across what the Roberts were doing in 2017, they had 70 students in four grades. At the top were six eighth-graders taking Advanced Placement Calculus BC, a course only a few high schoolers in the country even tried.
The program in Pasadena has grown from 14 fifth graders when it started to 175 children in eight years. At Pasadena High School, students who have mastered AP calculus in middle school take college courses in linear algebra, differential equations, and multivariate calculus.
The only other accelerated public school math program I’ve found at this level is the University of Minnesota’s Math for Young Talent Program. Its extracurricular classes welcome students from approximately 148 middle and high schools. Thirty-five of its 110 first-year calculus students are eighth-graders or younger.
Some children need harder lessons than schools are prepared to give them
About 5% of fifth graders in Pasadena score high enough on their middle school math placement test to qualify for the Math Academy program. The Roberts are looking for others who might benefit and have created a do-it-yourself math learning website that attracts parents from all over the world who want to step up. It allows elementary and middle school students to progress at their own pace and eventually explore topics they would otherwise only find in middle school.
Their online program has attracted kids like Stephen, a fifth-grade student in Redondo Beach, California. Stephen’s mother told Sandy Roberts, “You have to help me. My child can’t stop talking about math.
He has now mastered all mathematical subjects thanks to pre-calculus. The Roberts know this because they can see how he passed the exams offered by the site. These days, he happily digs into AP-level calculus.
I’ve met kids like that before. Their frustrated parents learned that few local school districts will offer many acceleration opportunities. Neither do private schools. Parents usually have jobs that limit the time they have to solve the problem.
The Roberts have three children, the eldest a freshman in college. They know the allure of video games that have captured this generation. So on their math learning system, “students earn XP, what we call experience points, for completing learning tasks,” Jason Roberts said. They can also compete in different leagues overseen by the website.
What surprised the couple, who met at the University of Chicago while taking a lot of math classes, is that nearly a third of the users they’ve signed up so far are adults. “Most of them are into technology and looking to improve their math skills,” Roberts said. Roberts himself could afford to spend his time teaching math because he was awarded for designing several systems for Uber.
The Roberts’ experience with super-accelerated math education in a mainstream school district shows why public education is unlikely to meet the demand for such programs. Classes as advanced as the ones the Robertses created seem to scare school districts. They don’t understand how to handle them and are extremely reluctant to take the advice of parents, even those who are as smart and as committed to public education as the founders of Math Academy.
Pasadena schools have an unfair reputation for mediocrity, primarily because more than half of their students come from low-income families. Pasadena’s high schools are actually quite good, with far more attendance in college-level courses like the AP and International Baccalaureate than many wealthier districts.
But Pasadena would never have embarked on such an accelerated program as Math Academy if the district had not been led by a superintendent as sophisticated and open to parent involvement as McDonald’s. When a group of parents, including some from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, asked permission for a similar program in a more affluent neighborhood near Pasadena, school administrators said no. The parents were told their idea was ‘not entirely based on research’ and raised ‘concerns about its developmental relevance for 13- and 14-year-olds’.
The Robertses and many parents who contact them believe that such reasoning is used by school administrators only to get rid of pushy moms and dads. The Math Academy website offers several relevant research papers. Teachers have long learned that the relevance of mathematics education does not depend on the age of the students but on their mastery of the necessary prerequisites.
The Roberts have just started marketing their system on MathAcademy.com, with a focus on homeschooling families.
In May, 24 eighth-graders in Pasadena took the three-hour, fifteen-minute AP Calculus BC exam. A score of 3 on the 5-point exam is considered successful and makes a student eligible for college credit. Ten of the students got 5 points, four got 4 points and four got 3 points.
Many parents across the country have shared with me a feeling the Roberts had when their eldest was in fifth grade. It doesn’t seem like their kids are learning much advanced math, even in the gifted classes. Many districts resist introducing algebra before eighth grade. Some reformers argue that these children should be slowed down, not accelerated, so they can deepen their lessons.
Calculus for eighth graders? That’s the difference in a school system.
Such arguments amaze educators who have found ways to successfully accelerate children. “We don’t sacrifice depth for width in any way,” Jason Roberts said. “Our system uses a symbiotic collection of highly effective instructional techniques such as distributed practice, layering, and blended review.”
The Roberts said there was a point in the development of their online program when they knew they had to spread the word. They had a number of fifth, sixth and seventh graders using the system. “Without the involvement of a teacher or an adult of any kind,” Jason Roberts said, they had “mastered four or five years of math in nine months.”
Given what the Robertses have shown is possible with such children if they are freed from the usual school district comfort zones, there will likely be more accelerated programs like theirs. But I expect them to be for homes, not schools.
The results of children learning in their bedroom or living room during the pandemic have been mixed at best. But if online programs succeed in moving at least some students from absorbing new concepts to revising to measuring understanding to fill in the gaps, and without an adult in the room, that could change things.
The American education system in the not too distant future, at least at its upper edges, may look very different than it does now.