As the father of twin boys with differing academic abilities, Krit Patel, of Troy, said honors classes are helpful in improving the learning of all students.
“I love them equally,” Patel said of his twins in middle school. “They’re not academically on the same end of the spectrum. I have a son that’s a special needs student and I have a son that’s in the honors class. They are not equal. They should not be in the same class. … Not all kids learn at the same speed and have the same ability.”
So when the father of four children in Troy Public Schools heard the district had canceled its honors English program for 9th graders and was planning to end its honors-track math classes for some grades in middle school, he and others grew concerned. A petition asking the district to keep the current system garnered almost 2,900 signatures. And hundreds have jammed meetings in recent weeks voicing their opposition.
The frustration has grown in Troy among parents in a district where 39% of the students are Asian American, many of whom are the children of immigrant parents who stress the importance of education. It’s a discussion that has taken place in other Asian American communities across the U.S. such as in Virginia and California, where there are similar debates over math instruction and tracking programs. And it comes at a time when Michigan is trying to compete with other states on attracting an educated workforce; parents have sought to convince the Troy school board that the district’s moves would weaken standards and the competitiveness of the region.
The Troy school board on May 16, after listening to speakers who pleaded with the district not to remove the honors classes, the board voted 6 to 1 to change its middle-school math curriculum by delaying until eighth grade the first opportunity for students to take advanced math.
Vital Anne, the only board member to dissent and the only member of Asian descent, drew loud and lengthy applause as she declared she would vote, no, saying: “Our community has spoken very clearly that they want a rigorous curriculum that challenges our students.”
School officials and most of the board members strongly defended the changes, saying the move does not technically remove honors classes and can help more students prepare for advanced math later. They said they’re making their decision based on research and studies.
Concerned parents pack meetings
Patel joined a number of concerned parents and students who packed the May 16 Troy school board meeting to protest the plan to approve a new curriculum called “Illustrative Math” that would end accelerated math classes for sixth and seventh grades. Several parents held up placards that read “Keep Honors, Keep Troy Excellence” and “Eliminate Honors Hurts Most Disadvantaged Families.” Security and Troy police officers kept watch during the three-hour meeting that at times drew angry outbursts. They escorted out a couple of angry parents.
Parents accused the board of not being open with their plans, failing to provide data to back up their proposals and ignoring the concerns of parents in a district with schools that have among the highest SAT scores in the state.
When Patel moved from Oregon to Michigan 10 years ago and was deciding where to live, the engineer chose Troy because he felt its school district was known for its academic excellence and options for advanced students.
“I would not make the same decision today based on what you guys are proposing,” Patel told the board at a public meeting earlier this month.
Parents said some students are actually not challenged enough and need even more rigorous classes.
“Why are you stepping backwards and not challenging the kids?” Purinma Patel Gupta, a longtime math teacher in Troy, told the board. “We’re competing globally with everybody on the earth. So why are you telling the students who have the ability to learn … we’re going to set you back? What’s wrong with you guys?”
They also were upset over an email sent May 2 by Troy Superintendent Richard Machesky that accused opponents of being part of a “politically motivated group funded by outside interests … orchestrating a campaign of misinformation here in Troy.” Machesky didn’t specify which group, but parents said he was falsely accusing them of being right-wing even though they said many of them are Democrats or not politically aligned. On May 11, some Troy district officials had an online discussion with members of the Troy Democratic Club to talk about their proposed changes.
School officials and board members defended their plans.
“I have spent more time talking to community members about this decision than any other decision I’ve been asked to make as a board member,” board member Nicole Wilson said at the meeting. “The research we have seen …. overwhelmingly supports the need for pushing our kids to a new kind of thinking.”
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Board President Karl Schmidt, citing the views of a Stanford University professor he consulted, Brian Conrad, said the changes are not similar to more radical changes made in San Francisco that outraged Asian American parents there. In 2015, San Francisco’s school district delayed all algebra classes until the 9th grade in order to promote equity, which led to a decline in the number of Asian American students taking AP Calculus, outraging some parents.
Conrad “said … the Troy plan is not the same as the San Francisco plan. He described our plan as the exact opposite of that,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt also sought to reassure parents these changes would not hurt their children’s college admissions.
Protect our rights, parents plead
Most of the speakers at the meeting, a mix of whites and Asian Americans, opposed the board’s decision.
“Our rights should be protected,” Steven Chen told the board during the three-hour meeting in Troy. “I don’t see any collaboration. You do not compromise.”
Another parent, Yawen Li, told the board: “As Troy residents, we pay plenty of taxes. … We trust the board members to make the right decision that is not based on ideology, that is based on strong research and data.”
Proponents of revising math classes and standards say it can help promote inclusion and diversity, but parents said the opposite is true, that it will actually hurt them and other minority groups by lowering expectations.
By eliminating honors programs, “the fast learners get totally disengaged and the slow learners become discouraged or give up on the class,” Troy parent Jing Xu said after the meeting, holding a placard that read “Choice promotes DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion).”
“If we do not have a choice for the students, I would not have come here (to live in Troy). Period. … Troy has all different needs among kids. … Some kids are really strong in arts, some kids are really strong in math, science. So if you give them choice, they’re motivated, they learn faster, they engage in the classroom.”
Xu and others are also concerned the changes will eventually reduce property values in Troy since nearby districts still have similar honors classes. Last year, voters in the district approved a hefty $555 million bond proposal to improve its buildings. Opponents said the district will be spending a lot of money while watering down its standards.
District defends math class changes
Kerry Birmingham, a spokeswoman for the Troy School District, said in an email the proposal does not remove honors courses and will “better prepare our students for high level mathematics in high school and beyond.”
“Instead of a heavy focus on computation, these new courses will require students to identify problems, find solutions and apply those solutions to new concepts,” Birmingham said. “This will make students more successful when they decide to enter Honors Algebra 1 in 8th Grade or when they decide to take a newly designed 8th Grade Mathematics course.”
Birmingham added that “this only impacts 6th and 7th grade math.”
“It simply delays the decision from age 10 to age 12 and better prepares students with the kinds of skills they need for advanced mathematics in high school, including multiple AP courses and college-level Calculus,” she said.
Wilson said a math teacher in the district who “wasn’t willing to speak at a meeting because she didn’t want to get hung” by opponents, supports the changes, saying students are often being pushed too fast and aren’t retaining information.
Another board member who voted to approve the changes, Nancy Philippart, said the teaching of math has to evolve.
“We don’t need our kids to be supercomputers,” Philippart said. “We need to … change with the times.”
Growing Asian American population
Many of the opponents to the removal of honors classes are of Asian descent and immigrants. The city of Troy is 29% Asian American, many of them immigrants from India, China, South Korea, the Philippines and their children. Immigrants make up 29% of the city’s residents, one of the highest percentages of foreign-born residents among cities in Michigan.
In the district, more than 39% of the students are of Asian descent, not including those who are part Asian, and whites are at 49%. In Troy High School, which has the highest SAT scores in the state among regular public schools, Asian Americans are now the largest group, making up 45% of the student population, slightly outnumbering whites, at 44%. But Asian Americans are underrepresented in city government and among district officials. There has never been a city councilperson of Asian descent, only one school board member is Asian American and few school leaders are Asian.
At the meeting, some attendees said the plans would disproportionately hurt Asian Americans and also immigrant groups with roots in the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
“So many things are wrong at all levels about this,” Hengguang Li, a Troy parent who also is chair of the math department at Wayne State University, told the board. “Little collaboration effort and consensus with the community you serve. … You’re rushing through changes at the cost of valuable trust from the Troy community.”
Li blasted the email from Superintendent Machesky accusing the opponents of being part of a political movement.
“The politically charged message to Troy parents is a disgrace,” Li said.
Moreover, “particular racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately affected (by the proposed changes): East Asians, Indians, first-generation immigrants from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. An unjustified policy like this will increase racial disparity and inequality,” Li said. “Taxation without representation is never ever a good idea.”
The crowd applauded and cheered after Li’s remarks.
District leaders say opponents are dishonest
In his May 2 email to parents, Machesky sought to provide more information amid a growing uproar in Troy.
“We rarely respond to this kind of dishonesty, but this has reached a point where we need to make sure that our community has accurate, truthful information,” Machesky wrote. “Here are the facts: There is no plan to remove honors opportunities from the Troy School District. … Our changes to the 6th and 7th grade math structure are deliberately designed so that students have a better preparation for advanced mathematics in high school and beyond — and so that more students are prepared to take AP and advanced math. … The change in structure simply moves the timeline for the selection of an advanced track to 8th grade.”
An earlier town hall meeting before Tuesday’s board meeting was held May 9 to address some of the issues. Suril Patel, a parent whose child will be entering Troy schools, spoke at both meetings. He said “a lot of parents did not even know about” the elimination last year of the honors English class in 9th grade.
Regarding the concerns expressed by parents at the meeting, school spokeswoman Birmingham said: “We appreciate the dialogue with our community over this process and are thankful that we have so many families passionate about math in our district.”
Contact Niraj Warikoo: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @nwarikoo.