How to Play Catch Up in Math (While Moving Students Forward)

Guest Blog:  John Seelke, High School Math Teacher

This item comes from John Seelke, a high school math teacher and 2007 Presidential Awardee in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) in Washington, D.C..  I met John at a teacher town hall with Secretary Duncan at SiriusXM in July.  At the time, I was struck by his passion for teaching and reaching at-risk students.  He recently passed along a strategy called “Remediation through Acceleration,” which he uses to help students who are behind in math while teaching the regular curriculum.  –Laurie Calvert, Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow

How to Play Catch Up in Math (While Moving Students Forward)For years, math teachers have faced the conundrum of what to do with students who are in their class but are not fully prepared to tackle the grade-level material. For some teachers, the solution has been to focus on remediation (for example, spending weeks on positive and negative numbers in an Algebra I class). I found this strategy unsatisfying, however, because it continually leaves students with gaps in their knowledge, and those gaps are simply passed on to the following year’s teacher.

As a new teacher at McKinley Technology High School, I struggled to get kids caught up while also teaching them the material within the curriculum.  Fortunately, my principal introduced to me the idea of “remediation through acceleration.” The concept introduces students to higher-level thinking and higher-level problems. Within the context of those problems, the teacher offers remediation to students who need it.

On the first day of the school year, I adopted this method in the first lesson for my pre-calculus class. Instead of spending the class on review, I had the students create a unit circle, using concepts they should have learned from previous classes (plotting points, using a protractor, etc.). By the end of the second day of class, students had used the assignment to create a unit circle and a sine and cosine graph. By monitoring each student’s progress at every step, I could tell which students struggled with math concepts, and I targeted them individually. Most importantly, the students moved ahead with important material in the pre-calculus class and felt proud that they were learning something new.

Download from the IES Clearinghouse: Research on Helping Struggling Students in Math.


  1. I am a parent of a 15 year old who is 4 years below grade-level in mathematics. Despite tutoring and other interventions (for years), she continues to struggle. She has an auditory processing delay. She believes her hopes of going to colleges are unrealistic due to her math delay. Can anyone point us in the direction of cutting-edge strategies for remediating high school math students with processing delay? Thank you.

  2. To Mom:
    You have many good, strong concerns about what is happening in the classrooms. Sadly, some educators feel that they must use artificial means to ensure that they do not look bad on the reports. Heavy pressures are being placed upon educators even while class sizes increase and budgets shrink.
    My classroom is one of those that does not send a book home unless a parent requests it. The notes I give are much better for my students because they, unlike those in the textbooks, are tailored to the students. Although all notes I give, as well as a copy of the assignment, can be accessed online, we can print all the notes and copies of the assignments for those who ask for them if they are absent. Additionally, teachers in my school make certain that we are available before and after to help those in need.
    As a parent, you need to make sure you are heard by your local school board and keep in touch with your own children’s teachers. You might not be able to change the status quo of the entire system, but you cab make a difference at the local level.
    Good luck.

  3. Francis Howell School District R-III in Missouri spent approximately $17,000 in grant money to purchase 34 iPads for Special Education. 5 ipads are currently being used at throughout the district to make sure there is an educational benefit if incorporated in the curriculum. The remaining 29 supposedly waiting until this “study” is complete. Teachers have reported the new technology is confusing and doesn’t mesh w/ the curriculum. Why were all 34 purchased w/o a concrete plan of their usage? Will they be returned and $$ refunded if not used?-Students are being found ineligible for Spec. Ed. The evaluations/re-evaluations administered are often not appropriate assessments of the individual education needs and disability. IEP’s and 504 Plans are being replaced w/ General Education Intervention (Study Hall). This is required for these students, they receive no grade, and are only allowed one elective each quarter as a result.-Core Subject AYP goals not met. Assessments and grades are recorded/ reported as if AYP Goals have been achieved. Scores are elevated and others omitted entirely, thus improving the overall “report card”.-Textbooks remain in school because there aren’t enough for each student. No Math textbooks, class uses a workbook and teacher gives lessen in class. Parents use google to re- teach homework, students w/o computer access at home get left behind. I could go on and on and on….It keeps me up at night.

  4. Some of the best mathematicians and teachers of mathematics are slow, methodical thinkers yet we continue to test them with timed, constructed responses as in Praxis, Mathematical Models and Proofs exams which measure nothing.

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