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Archive for Monday, January 1, 2001

Schools attack math problem with creativity

January 1, 2001

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— Hands-on. Manipulatives. Real-life situations. Integration. Welcome to the new math of the new millennium.

The concepts of math from multiplication to advanced algebra remain relatively unchanged. But the teaching of math is changing as educators try to improve test scores locally and globally.

Math has become a focal point of concern for parents and educators alike. Statewide, Kansas students do not perform well on math assessments. And worldwide, U.S. students are outperformed by their peers in other countries.

In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, American students performed a little better but lagged behind students in nearly half the countries that participated including Australia, Canada and several European and Asian nations. School districts are starting to pay attention to employers, who say they want workers who can solve problems and think abstractly.

"Unfortunately, we have too many students who are not succeeding in math, and this is an opportunity to reach them," said Sandy Tauer, instructional coordinator for science and math in Derby schools. There, two high school teachers are encouraging problem-solving instead of working equations in a pilot program.

Linette Liby, a teacher at Towanda Elementary School, knew that her eighth-graders didn't score as high as they could have on state math tests last year.

"That doesn't mean you don't try to teach them again, just because they didn't learn it the one year," she said. "In our district, that's what we're striving for what I'm trying to change."

She and other educators across the state appear willing to change. They're devoting more class time to math-related activities, trying radically different teaching styles and curriculum, and seeking more training for teachers.

'Struggling'

Derby High School freshman Meagan Becker remembers feeling lost in her pre-algebra class in middle school. She likes a pilot program at Derby High a lot better and is glad she is not in a traditional algebra class for freshmen.

"We would be struggling," she said.

Many Kansas students are struggling in math, if they are judged by their performance on state assessments.

Just 25.3 percent of the state's 10th-graders received a proficient score or better in tests given last spring. Proficient means they answered at least 60 percent of the questions correctly.

Seventh-graders performed slightly better, with 35.4 percent achieving a proficient score or better. And 40.8 percent of fourth-graders received a proficient score.

It's difficult to compare Kansas students with their peers in neighboring states because each state uses different tests, said Steve Adams, team leader for school improvement and accreditation in the Kansas Department of Education.

"I don't get the sense that our kids are necessarily deficient compared to other states," he said. "I get the sense that probably mathematics instruction in the United States has been too reliant on arithmetic, and not teaching those valuable mathematical concepts."

Students fall short not on the mechanics of math, but on the concepts, he said. Just about anyone can operate a cash register or calculator, but graduates need problem-solving skills to succeed in today's workplace.

New curriculum

Educators agree a variety of approaches are needed, from aligning curriculum to training teachers to finding new approaches that help students learn to become problem-solvers.

Making sure curriculum reflects state math standards will ensure that students are taught the concepts they will be tested on, said Adams. It's not required of districts, but state officials are encouraging it.

Lee Stiff, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said he is most concerned with teachers particularly at the middle school level who teach math but do not have a degree in math or math education.

"We've got to get serious about how we prepare our teachers, so that they, in turn, can be better informed and better able to help our students," he said.

Math all the time

At Towanda Elementary, Liby saw that her eighth-graders had free time after finishing their assignments.

"Here at Towanda, our reading scores are pretty good; we read all the time," said Liby, a 13-year veteran. "Wouldn't it make sense if we did math all the time? Our scores would be better, too."

She now has her students thinking math "from the minute they walk in the class to the minute they leave."

She has a math problem on the board for students to work first thing in the morning, she says. Each day touches on specific areas such as computations or logic problems.

Elementary teachers in Valley Center turned to a new math curriculum as a way to reinforce math concepts throughout the year.

"They see it in a week, and then see it in a month, and then see it in another month," said Mark Hoy, fourth-grade teacher at Wheatland Elementary. "It keeps zinging back."

At Derby High School, 60 freshmen are helping pilot a new approach to teaching math, which strongly emphasizes integration of math subjects such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry and statistics.

Instead of first learning algebra, then geometry and then advanced algebra in self-contained courses over several years, the students are exposed to some or all the subjects at about the same time.

"It's a shift in the style of learning as well as in instruction," said Tauer, the Derby instructional coordinator for science and math. The students are the problem-solvers, encouraged to be independent not passive learners, Tauer said.

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