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.

By visiting the school throughout the year, I felt the academic pangs of today’s adolescents -- the anxiety of getting into one of Virginia’s competitive universities, the pressures of staying on top of a demanding workload. And I lived through the now commonplace teenage ritual of waking before dawn to get to school every day, an exhausting schedule that was debated and affirmed by the school board this year.

I also learned a lot about math beyond Fairfax, including the wars over how math should be taught, how other countries approach training math teachers, and how many college students in the US still require math remediation.

We are far from our goal of becoming a math literate society. Many students still say they are uninterested in math, even in high-performing Fairfax County. But encouraging all students to pursue math further is an important start.

Math is an equalizer. Good math skills will multiply your chances at a high paying job and a comfortable life. I say this from the vantage point of a newsroom that is rapidly downsizing, a newspaper industry that is upside down. Options are important. The highest demand jobs are often in engineering, information technology, and health care. All require advanced math skills.

Becoming familiar again with graphing and factoring skills reminded me that I can do this stuff. I never used it, so I lost it. I suspect my math re-education is not over, though. I am taking a financial planning for women class this summer, and I’m tackling the numbers in my credit report (ugh) and my bank statements right now. I intend to study more statistics and economics. Who knows, some day I might even take calculus.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  June 24, 2009; 10:04 AM ET
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Thank you Michael, it was a pleasure reading your blog.

Posted by: jazzymom | June 24, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

jazzymom, you say that like this is the last math blog! Hopefully that's not the case - I'd like it to continue (hopefully more frequently) and look forward to helping Michael with her calculus homework!

Posted by: tomsing | June 24, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Michael, do take calculus - you will enjoy it. Now you know that you lose it if you don't use it. So read a math book now and then to keep the lingo in your head - and the formulas - and you'll be ready to really savor calculus. Which happens when you come to the course prepared.

Posted by: KathyWi | June 24, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

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