My Turn: Strengthening our curriculum at Mohawk Trail Regional School

  • Thurber

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Over the past several years, the Mohawk Trail Regional School District has embarked on an ambitious program to improve the quality of education we offer and ensure that all of our students are ready for what comes next — college or career. This process has involved much change, both in what we teach and how we teach it, and caused some to contend that Mohawk’s curriculum has been watered down and lacks “rigor.”

In fact, the opposite is true. As this process has moved forward, Mohawk has strengthened its graduation requirements, moving well beyond the “core” minimums set by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Among the new requirements is completion of an independent study “Capstone” project that encourages students to pursue in-depth a particular passion or career interest. In addition, Mohawk offers more than 10 Advanced Placement (AP) courses, more than any other school our size in this region. Importantly, more than 68 percent of our AP students score a 3 or higher on their AP tests (2017), positioning them to earn college credit in these areas.

We also have begun to offer college-credit courses at Mohawk in conjunction with Greenfield Community College (GCC). This year’s Introduction to Robotics & Electronics will be joined next spring by an arts course, with plans to add a social studies offering the following year. Students also can choose from a number of innovative, interdisciplinary courses, some developed by our educators and some initiated by students themselves, that help students broaden their perspectives and improve their critical thinking.

But it is perhaps the changes in how Mohawk courses are taught that have generated the most controversy. In the middle/high school, Mohawk has consciously moved away from “tracking” — the process of dividing students by perceived ability and placing them into “honors” and “standard” courses of instruction. Mohawk has chosen to make this change because research has shown that when properly executed, “heterogeneous” (de-tracked) programs provide better outcomes for all students. Students who are assigned to “standard” classrooms beginning in Grade 7 quickly come to believe that they are not as capable as some of their classmates and that expectations for their learning are not as high. Many of these students come from low-income families, and too few see themselves as “college material” or feel confident enough to choose the challenge of higher-level math, science or AP courses.

Mohawk is working to change this dynamic by providing a demanding curriculum to all students. For those who may find some of the material difficult, appropriate supports are provided; students looking for additional challenge may choose the “honors option” which requires them to go deeper into the subject matter through extended assignments, personalized instruction and higher-order analytical tasks. While this work is sometimes done independently, it is defined, reviewed and assessed by the classroom teacher.

The transition to heterogeneous classes has not been easy. The early results, however, are encouraging. In the humanities and sciences, where heterogeneous classrooms have been prevalent at Mohawk for several years, we are seeing significant improvements for all students, as measured by the number and diversity of students taking and passing AP classes. In 2011, approximately 20 percent of students took AP exams, and 58 percent achieved a score of 3 or higher. Only 7 percent of exam-takers were from low-income families. In 2017, 32 percent of students took AP exams, 68 percent scored 3 or higher, and 32 percent of takers were from low-income families. Over this period, the mean AP score for low-income test-takers improved from 2.2 to 2.9, while the mean score for all other students also improved, from 3.1 to 3.3.

The last step in this process — moving Mohawk’s math classes to the heterogeneous approach — has generated the most opposition. This transition began two years ago and will be fully implemented next year. It comes at a time when the district is also moving from traditional math instruction to an inquiry-based approach — one that replaces rote learning and “regurgitation” of principles and formulas with collaboration, debate and discussion about a range of mathematical approaches that might yield a “right answer.”

Mohawk embarked on this change because data told us the old approach was not adequately preparing our math students. Standardized test scores were mediocre, and our students — both honors and standard — were being required to take remedial math in college. (These problems are not unique to Mohawk.) So we changed how and what we teach in math. We now begin the inquiry-based approach in the sixth grade; we put an increased emphasis on basic algebraic concepts and problem-solving in the seventh and eighth grades; and we require an intensive Algebra I class in ninth grade. Further more, we have expanded upper-level math offerings and are adopting a revised course sequence that by the 2019-20 school year will allow students to move all the way through AP Calculus by the end of their junior year.

The revamping of Mohawk’s math curriculum has been difficult and imperfect. Initial implementation was flawed, and follow-up communication has not met parents’ expectations. For this, we apologize. We pledge to do better as we analyze data on student performance and college readiness and make future decisions. But there has been no “dumbing down” of the curriculum, only a striving to help all students reach the top.

Martha Thurber is chairwoman of the Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee.