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Why I Didn’t Want My Kids in Advanced Math

The school wanted to put my children on the fast track to success — shouldn’t I want the same thing?

Darlena Cunha

Published on: December 27, 2019

middle school girl doing math on a whiteboard

It was late spring when my twin daughters bopped through the door after school carrying their books, jackets and bags … and a letter from the school. They were invited to spend an entire day at the end of their school year testing for a place in advanced math in sixth grade.

Both my girls are A students, especially in math, but when I asked them if they wanted to take this test, the answer was a resounding no. What kid would want to give up fun end-of-the-year activities for arithmetic and algebra? Those decisions usually have to be made and enforced by the parents, but I agreed with my kids. I didn’t want them in advanced math.

We skipped the test, in spite of multiple reminders and entreaties by the school.

Growing up, I knew I was going to college from the second I stepped into kindergarten. I took advanced courses all throughout middle and high school, all the Advanced Placement this-and-thats, and I did fine. I know how they help students look better on applications, and I know the school journey is important from start to finish, so why wouldn’t I want my kids to be part of that from the get-go, especially since they’re demonstrating proficiency?

I was worried they couldn’t handle it. And by it, I don’t mean the math.

The school wanted to put my children on the fast track to success — shouldn’t I want the same thing?

I was worried they couldn’t handle it. And by it, I don’t mean the math.

I remembered the hours we’d spent pouring over questions on how to convert 2 and 5/16 to decimal form, and how to calculate the remainder into a fraction during long division. The tears, the miscommunications, the hardships. My girls quibbled and fought against us, the work and themselves. These should have been fun-filled afternoons, rewards for a hard day’s work. Instead, they were extensions of those days; they were demands of more drudgery in a way my children didn’t seem quite ready for.

It’s not that they couldn’t handle the problems on an intellectual level. The girls could grasp the academics of it just fine, as they had shown through their grades.

The problem isn’t with the math, but with how my children process and regulate their thoughts and emotions. They are anxious by nature, and can only function if they understand completely every detail of every problem placed before them. They will not trust authority figures or listen to a full explanation if even the tiniest bit of it doesn’t make sense to them on its face. They will either argue back (at home), or stop paying attention entirely because they believe the premise is flawed (at school). I once had my daughter shout at me that 36 could not be divided by 2. She was 10. We had to wait 30 minutes and try again because it took her that long to calm down, trust me — and the calculator when she didn’t trust me — and do the count up by twos to prove it a third time over. All of this drama when she’s known the rules of division by 2 since the third grade. It’s the fixed mindset that foils us, not the FOIL method. And when my children are convinced, they are convinced. They are immovable. Due to this, they even get extra time on their tests.

Many times, parents and teachers say that kids don’t do as well in courses that bore them, but what if the added pressure of the work at school and at home, with concepts flying at them in their immovability got them in over their heads before they have learned how to learn? The tools my children need right now are not so much the fast track to calculus but the ability to think critically, to make connections outside the box, to use common sense, and to apply logic and lessons to all their work, not just in the strict lanes in which they learned them. Without those bases, all the academics in the world won’t stick.

My kids have their entire lives to be successful and ahead of their peers; to my view it is better that they start that journey with the right tools before being shoved into it and failing, not based on merit but based on the ability to cope.

Still, even though we skipped that test, my kids scored so well on their state standardized tests that the system put them in advanced math anyway. At that point, I didn’t actively fight it. I figured I could pull them if it wasn’t working out, and, to me, there is a difference between not actively seeking something and actively denying it. So, we gave it a try.

I want my children to succeed, but I want them to decide their paths and the speed at which they travel.

Amazingly, both the school and I were correct in our assessments of my children. They are doing just fine in math — A students, both. It’s the other subjects in which they are struggling, science and reading in particular. That fixed mindset shows up in terms of arguing the steps of the scientific method or the order of a thesis, supporting evidence and quotations in a school essay. The fiery tempers flare when I, a writer and a woman who has a degree in ecology, attempt to open my children’s eyes to basic stepping stones of knowledge over specifics of instructions for particular assignments. The battle is just as strenuous and stressful as I thought it would be — it’s just the subject that is the surprise.

The point here is that, as parents, we can’t know everything, and we can’t protect our kids from problems that haven’t yet occurred. There will be many times when our children get in over their heads, and it’s going to be our job not to hold them above the water, but to swim there with them, to teach them those slow building blocks of how to live and learn alongside the school subjects that rely on those blocks. I want my children to succeed, but I want them to decide their paths and the speed at which they travel without me pushing them into my rigid, societally tinged views of what success looks like. I think, no matter what, they’ll do just fine.

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