Math placement, not background, leaves students behind, professor says

Tuesday, March 4, 2008 | 9:02 p.m. CST; updated 5:31 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — The achievement gap in schools could be closed with five consecutive years of above-average teaching.

Lee Stiff, a professor of math education at North Carolina State University, said the research supports this claim, but, after five years of the No Child Left Behind Act, the gap hasn’t closed because the legislation is not written correctly.

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“We should be seeing some returns,” Stiff said.

Stiff presented his research Tuesday night during the Richard Andrews Lecture sponsored by the MU College of Education. He focused on the effects of placement of low-income students in sixth grade math classes. Stiff said that placement and success in Algebra I classes is highly correlated to retention and success.

Low-income students, however, are not always placed in the higher math classes, Stiff said, because their elementary math teachers believe they do not have the support structures to be successful. They say the students cannot succeed in these classes because their parents cannot help them with their course work.

“Most parents, high income or not, can’t help their kids with advanced math homework,” Stiff said.

According to Stiff, No Child Left Behind unfairly targets low-income students, not low-achieving students, and is the reason for schools failing to meet annual yearly progress.

While No Child Left Behind is partly to blame, Stiff said teachers and administrators are leaving the low-income students behind by not giving them ample opportunity in higher math during the middle grades.

“It’s us who hold students back from challenging courses,” Stiff said. “We can teach each child mathematics no matter what the background.”

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