Weapons of Math Instruction
I remember my struggles with middle-school math and how hard it was for me and my fellow students to move from arithmetic into the early stages of abstract math — lines, slopes, proportion, x and y equations. The frustration was not confined to students. My seventh-grade algebra teacher in particular had a very short fuse when we proved deaf and blind to his instruction. A confident and direct man, he believed the concepts were easy and that his lessons were clear. Ergo, those who did not grasp things quickly were morons. He once called on a student for an answer to a problem he put on the board. The answer was so wrong, so impossibly wrong, so mathematically derelict that it unhinged the instructor. "What?" he began screaming. "What? How could that be the answer? How is that possible? How could you even BEGIN to think that could be the answer?" All but foaming at the mouth, he shrieked at the student. "What are you, some kind of MIRACLE WORKER?"
That student went on to study law. I staggered on through pre-calculus and turned to geology when I faced a science/math requirement in college.
That's not exactly a nutshell history of math education in the U.S. over the past several decades, but it does reflect some of the dysfunction in how the subject is taught — and learned. Wise heads have regularly called attention to the math and science deficit in the U.S. and its impact on the country's ability to compete. The ACT College Readiness Report notes that 78% of U.S. high school graduates in 2008 "did not meet readiness benchmark levels for one or more entry-level college courses in mathematics, science, reading, and English." The U.S. ranks 48th in the world in the quality of its math and science education, according to the World Economic Forum, and big achievement gaps persist between various ethnic groups.
Talk of improving anything in education inevitably leads to frustrating arguments involving broad areas of policy and philosophy. But there's an effort now under way in Florida that could become a game-changer, at least in the area of teaching algebra.
SRI International is a California-based non-profit research institution that's been involved in innovations ranging from electronic check processing to the computer mouse, high-def TV standards and the bar code. In 2007, SRI located a branch in St. Petersburg. In the process, connections developed between local officials, particularly then-Mayor Rick Baker, and SRI's overall research efforts, which include education.
Educators know that algebra is a gateway to both higher math and to higher education in general. SRI researchers identified a number of essential concepts in algebra — including rate, proportionality and linear equations — and developed a teaching strategy that integrates technology, teaching materials and teacher training. Part of the approach involves incorporating simple, visual models to demonstrate math concepts: Controlling animated runners on a computer screen, for example, by manipulating the slopes of colored lines on a graph. (Visit math.sri.com.)
SRI tested the first unit of the program in Texas in 2005-06. Students using it along with the existing Texas curricula improved their test scores by 46%, more than twice the rate at which a control group improved. The average student moved from the 50th percentile to the 80th. Statistically, the effect was huge. A U.S. Department of Education study of 16 commercially available technology-based products found those products had no effect at all.
The SRI-Florida connection led to the introduction of the SunBay Digital Math program in Pinellas County. In 2009, 15 seventh-grade teachers began incorporating the first unit of the program into their algebra classes. Initial results have replicated the results the program got in the Texas pilot, and big learning gains extended across all ethnic groups. Both middle school algebra teachers and professors at the USF-St. Petersburg
College of Education are enthusiastic, says Baker, who's now director of innovation partnerships for USF. With funding from SRI, the Helios Foundation, the Pinellas County Education Foundation and Progress Energy, the program has been extended for a second year, and educators are working on the second of eight instructional units.
The elegance of the program is that the SunBay materials work with existing classroom computers and complement, rather than replace, existing curricula. The program is light on materials and heavy on approach. In adopting it, school districts can focus on teacher training and staff development — activities they already conduct — rather than having to purchase some brand new gee-whiz curriculum in a box and start from scratch. By traditional curriculum standards, the project is inexpensive and it's scalable.
Baker says the eight units could be completed and the program could be expanded districtwide in Pinellas within two years. It could be available statewide within five years. SRI, along with USF-St. Petersburg and Pinellas County School District officials, have spoken with state Department of Education chief Eric Smith about seeking Race to the Top funding.
Baker says that Curt Carlson, SRI's CEO, "told me it was the most important thing they're working on. He thinks it can transform the way we teach algebra in America."
The SunBay program may well offer Florida an effective, inexpensive way to improve math education statewide and maintain the leadership role it has taken in education reform. The program also highlights the value of the money and effort spent on recruiting research institutions like SRI. The ultimate point of having those types of outfits in Florida is not just the research and products that their Florida-based branches produce — SRI's branch in St. Petersburg, after all, does marine science, not education research. For Florida, the presence of an SRI or a Scripps provides a portal into the research institution's full range of activities and funding sources — allowing the state to take advantage of many opportunities, not just the ones that start here.
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