Posted at 10:04 AM ET, 06/24/2009

School's Out for the Summer

It’s the first full week of summer vacation at Fairfax High School. Grades are in. The hallways are empty. My math teacher Tricia Colclaser is on a well-deserved vacation.

All of her Algebra II students passed the Standards of Learning test this spring – a feat. That is the standardized test I failed last summer, prompting this journey to revisit high school algebra and find out what I might be missing and what it might take to create a generation of students who aren’t afraid to call themselves “math people.”

What I discovered at Fairfax High was a hard-working teacher who knew her math, a fast-paced, too-crammed curriculum, and a group of teenagers who mostly tried their best. Sure, there was a guy who snoozed in the back and a reliable smattering of shrugs when the teacher came around to check homework. But I was surprised by the high number of students who stuck around after class to ask for help.

Continue reading this post »

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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 06/18/2009

High School Diplomas - Is One Enough?

I wrote a story for today's paper about two students from my Algebra II class who are pursuing different high school diplomas. Nila Fasihi studies cosmetology part-time in a career academy and is pursuing a standard diploma. Her classmate Simon Lhuillier is taking honors classes and hoping to get into one of Virginia's competitive four-year universities. He's pursuing a more rigorous advanced diploma.

Traditional tracking into vocational or academic programs is breaking down in many ways. But Virginia's policy of offering different diplomas remains controversial at a time when the emphasis nationally is on raising academic standards for all students.

The standard diploma has been the sticking point. It requires less science, less math, less social studies, and no foreign language. Students who graduate with these minimum requirements are likely to still need remediation in community college.

When educators allow for a range of expectations, it is too often poor and minority students who end up taking the lowest-level classes, civil rights advocates say. Indeed, the state's numbers show that poor students are twice as likely to get the standard diploma.

But Virginia's Board of Education recently took steps to raise the basic requirements for a standard diploma. Currently, students can spend two years taking Algebra 1, rather than one year, and they can earn two credits for the course. Ditto chemistry and geometry. That means they only need to take one more math or science courses overall to earn the three credits they need to graduate.

The Board voted in May to allow students to earn one credit -- and only one credit -- for those courses beginning in 2010. So students will end up going farther in math and science overall. For many students, that will get them closer to college, with an advanced algebra class and more science under their belts.

And what do you readers think? Does it make more sense to set the same requirements for everyone or to acknowledge different ability levels and interests with different diplomas?

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Posted at 2:32 PM ET, 05/19/2009

Aspiring Elementary Teachers Fail New Math Test

From the Boston Globe today -- Three out of four aspiring elementary teachers in Massachusetts failed a new basic math test the state is administering, confirming fears that teachers in the lower grades are not prepared to give their students a strong math base.

I'm interested to know whether other states plan to follow suit and give a similar test. It looks like teacher prep programs are already responding and upping their math requirements.

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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 05/16/2009

Is Math Fun? Should it be?

I wrote a story for today's paper about wide ranging public relations campaigns to win the hearts and minds of the average American math student. Plenty of companies and foundations and teachers are trying to polish up math's image -- to make it seem more cool or fun.

Here's a link to an award-winning video called "Crank Dat Calculus" that a Virginia high school student designed to show how math can be fun. The Franklin County student won $3,000 from the National Math and Science Initiative, a non-profit that is also working to expand access to Advanced Placement classes and develop strong teacher preparation programs in math and science.

Experts disagree about whether singing raps about math concepts or rewriting text books with extra pictures or word problems about skateboarders is really the trick to engaging more students.

Math can be interesting all by itself if you don't get too fogged or behind. Many teachers I know try to lure students in with the concepts alone.

What do you think? Where do fun and games fit into math?

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Posted at 2:38 PM ET, 05/12/2009

Encouraging Native American Girls in Science And Math

I went to the Arizona desert recently for vacation and had the chance to visit an Indian reservation. While touring a new community college there, I learned about an unusual approach to encourage girls in math and science.

The Tohono O’odham Community College created a program this year for daughters who are interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math -- and also for their mothers. High school drop out rates are high on the reservation. Many of those who do graduate and go away to college find it difficult to live away from their families and their homes. Even an hour away in Tucson, many students feel isolated in the big city surrounded by non-native people - and drop out.

Program director Victoria Hobbs said it took her 15 years to earn her undergraduate degree in education. "When things got difficult from me, I just came home," she said.
Her mother was always glad to have her back, she said.

The program prepares girls for the rigors of college life, through financial planning and by encouraging them to take college-level classes in high school. It also prepares their mothers, many of whom never attended college. They give them a picture of why it's important for their daughters to earn a degree and how they can support them while they are away. They also get a dose of science education through workshops and field trips with their daughters. The mother-daughter pairs recently went on a group hike through the Sonoran desert and learned about plant life in three languages, English, the scientific term, and the O'odham term.

Until recently, the only way to pursue higher education was to leave the reservation, but that is also starting to change. The tribal community college, a two-year college formed in 2000, plans to expand and offer more degrees. It's current president, Olivia Vanegas-Funcheon, is also a role model for the girls. She is a former engineer and an O'odham woman.

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Posted at 1:47 PM ET, 04/28/2009

NAEP Scores Stagnant for High School Students

According to results released today, performance was up for middle and elementary school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that charts progress across state lines and over time.

Math scores for 9- and 13-year olds have steadily risen over the past decade on what's known as the Nation's Report Card, which has been assessing a sample of students at ages 9,13 and 17 every few years since the early 1970s.

There's one glaring exception to the good news: 17-year olds. Results for the oldest group are stuck in the same rut they were in 30 years ago.

Many educators attribute the growth in the younger students' scores to the ratcheting up of standards that has characterized education reform of late.

David P. Driscoll, a member of the director of the National Assessment Governing Board, summed up two perspectives on what's happening with the older set:

"An optimist would say, 'Things are heading in the right direction....We just need to wait until these 9-year olds become 17-year olds and they will bring increased achievement.'"

On the other hand:

"A pessimist would say, 'We have been waiting a long time...a couple of decades for some significant improvement,'" he said.

A pessimist might want to look beyond the US to other countries that are performing better, "where students have longer school days, longer school years, and where the depth in mathematics and the complexity in grading is greater and high school students are challenged more."

Driscoll pointed out one promising trend. Teens who are taking higher level classes in high school tend to perform better on the tests. As more students enroll in college-level classes, the scores could reflect that.

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Posted at 12:08 PM ET, 04/24/2009

Career Day at Fairfax High

Yesterday was career day at Fairfax High.

The list of professions represented on the roster was long: Accountant, Senior analyst. Funeral director. College professor. Government executive. Athletic trainer. Occupational therapist. State trooper. Systems engineer. Pilot. Pediatrician. Etc.

For me - the Washington Post Staff Reporter - the experience was a terrifying glimpse of yet another profession, Teaching. As I stood in front of the class, three groups of teenagers took turns filling the seats before me. Suddenly, the short outline I had scrawled onto a notebook looked very short. And the half hour I had to present began to feel like a very long time.

After introductions, I offered an overview of how I got into the profession and passed around copies of some stories I had written. Hmmm. Now what. Any questions? I tried to remember some tips I've heard from other teachers.

Check in. Are the students following? A rash of blank stares told me, probably not.

Engage. I tried to ask questions. What interests you about journalism? What's the last interesting news story you read?

Plan. Plan. Plan. I cursed myself for not having organized some nifty activity or pop quiz to get things going.

At the same time, I realized I was coming up against some overarching challenges. First, how to be encouraging about the industry right now? Become a journalist! Retire at 45 (with a buy out, if you are lucky)! With all sincerity, I did my best to recruit them. We need you, smart young people, native internet users, to help us transform the profession. Bring your ideas, your interest in writing and current events and help us get news out to new people.

Which leads me to my second challenge: Most teenagers I know do not read the newspaper or consume news in any traditional form. Newspapers? Forget it. Blogs? They've heard of them. Even the Daily Show - the new news source of the masses -- is faintly recognizable. Gossip goes a long way in high school, I guess. Facebook goes pretty far.

As the business models for newspapers continue to implode, I know of several journalists who are considering a move to teaching. Good luck, I say! My stint in front of the classroom yesterday was tough. But we could use some cross-pollination. More insight from the next generation will help us get our industry over this hump.

As an aside, I also gave the students a plug for math. While jobs are scarce right now overall, I explained, the vast majority of growing fields require a solid background in math or science. "A useful thing to pursue," I said.

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Posted at 2:23 PM ET, 04/22/2009

Singapore Math - A Model Method?

The Ministry of Education in Singapore is releasing a new book this month that summarizes the thinking behind the "Model Method" for teaching math. The approach has drawn interest from many corners of the world thanks to the country's top performance on international exams.

At a presentation Singapore's Embassy last night, education officials and researchers from the US and Singapore highlighted some key differences between the two systems.

Singapore's method is highly visual and explores fewer topics, but in greater depth. A 2005 study found that Singapore's math curriculum covered about 15 topics in an elementary school year; while Maryland's covered about 29. And while Singapore's text books have an average of 34 lessons with 15 pages of explanation for each, much bulkier texts in the US include an average of 157 lessons, with about four pages of explanation per lesson.

I also learned some more surprising differences:

Professional development is intensive for all teachers in Singapore, but about half the elementary teachers do not have university degrees. That is poised to change, though, as education standards for entering teachers are increasing, said Madame Low Khak Gek, the director of curriculum, planning and development with Singapore's Ministry of Education.

Starting salaries for math teachers match public sector accountants or engineers. "Teachers are treated as professionals," said Susan Sclafani, director of state services for the National Center for Education and the Economy.

Teacher evaluations are extremely comprehensive, and teachers who succeed receive bonuses worth one to three months of salary.

Mentoring programs for new teachers in Singapore last five years!

Grades one and two have smaller class sizes...only 30 students. Other grade levels tend to have 40 students or more.

Students are taught in English, not their native tongue. Many are bilingual or trilingual.

And another big difference -- Students there are more likely to take their studies very seriously. They understand "the quality of their preparation" will indicate "the quality of their lives," Sclafani said.

People often ask, how applicable is a successful model in Singapore to the more diverse and much larger US? I'm also interested in the practical challenges, given that textbooks in the US are written with state standards and assessments in mind, and matching them up with another country's approach might be tough.

What do you think?

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Posted at 10:54 AM ET, 04/15/2009

Fourth Quarter at Fairfax High

The week after spring break, students at Fairfax High are still waiting for their third quarter grades but are already rounding the bend into the final lap of their school year. The assignment sheet for the Algebra II class shows the state Standards of Learning test is only a month away! Before then, they need to learn about variation, conics, series and sequences. Oh, and do a whole lot of review.

This morning, many of the teens rested their heads on their arms as they puzzled through new vocabulary and some new ideas during a lesson on variation. Teacher Tricia Colclaser went over the differences between direct variation, or Y= KX problems, versus inverse variation Y= K / X and joint variation or Z = KXY. We looked at different problems and to figure out whether the variables have a direct or inverse relationship. Example: Longer days and shorter nights have an inverse relationship but the brighter sun and the warmer temperature have a direct relationship.

It mostly made sense. And it was fun to play with numbers again. A problem we were asked to solve: z varies directly with x and inversely with y. Write the variation if x=3, y=4, and z = 2.

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Posted at 4:48 PM ET, 04/ 3/2009

Friday Quiz

Here is the second math puzzle from the Jordanian newspaper Al Ghad. Thanks to reader Bob Evans for sending it our way!

Algebra 2.JPG

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Posted at 4:29 PM ET, 04/ 3/2009

Fairfax Readies More 8th Graders for Algebra

Fairfax has taken a slower approach to middle school Algebra than most places. The only option now is an honors course that about half of eighth graders (and some 7th grades) take. Average math students are stuck with pre-Algebra.

But the school system is looking to bolster its numbers of 8th graders in Algebra with a non-Honors course next fall. They started this year with a pilot program at a couple of middle schools.

Two teachers from Hughes Middle School told the school board at its last meeting that the early venture has been a huge success so far. It's too early to know if every one will pass, but anyone who doesn't can always retake the course in ninth grade.

"My students were flattered to be placed in Algebra," one teachers said, but the intimidation and the power of the name "ALGEBRA" made them pay more attention and work harder.

"Raise the bar; It works," she said.

A common complaint about early Algebra is that students who are weak in basic math skills will not be ready. But she said that the Algebra course reviews a lot of basic math and can help students learn the skills by applying them in a more sophisticated way.

**On a side note, some school board members quipped that they could not remember what Algebra was and one vowed she would "solve a quadratic equation before I die." The youngest member of the board, student representative Arvin Ahmadi from Thomas Jefferson High school for Science and Technology regaled the board with the quadratic formula set to music.

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