When Becky O’Bryant attended high school 20 years ago, she needed two general math classes to graduate.

“I never took algebra, but it didn’t matter,” the Kalamazoo resident said. “I knew I wasn’t going to college.”

It’s a different world for O’Bryant’s children — Briana Jones, a junior at Kalamazoo Central High School, and Brycen Jones, a seventh-grader at Hillside Middle School. Both must take four years of high school math and pass algebra, geometry and advanced algebra under new Michigan high school graduation requirements that start with the Class of 2011.

“I think it’s awesome,” O’Bryant said. “I didn’t do well in school because nobody forced me to. So the fact that they’re doing this for my kids, it’s amazing. They need to be ready for college.”

For better or worse, math education in Michigan — and the United States — is in the midst of a potentially profound revolution.

Ever since America introduced the concept of universal high school more than a century ago, higher-level math has been the dividing line between the “smart” students and everybody else. Those days are over, and math literacy is now being equated with reading literacy.

It’s a huge cultural shift impacting everyone involved with K-12 math. No longer can students sidestep algebra and beyond if they want a high school diploma. Meanwhile, parents with minimal math skills are struggling to help their children in a subject they themselves don’t understand.

High school math teachers accustomed to teaching top performers in their advanced math classes are now seeing the entire spectrum of students, forcing them to change the way they teach. Elementary and middle school teachers are feeling pressured to better prepare students for the new high school curriculum.

School administrators are implementing one reform after another — from math boot camps to a double dose of math classes for struggling students to credit-recovery programs to allow students to make up failed classes — to help children meet the new standards and graduate on time.

In short, the new standards have forced a dramatic rethinking of attitudes and practices in regards to math education.

“You can argue whether the state should have set the bar at Algebra II,” said Lynne Cowart, assistant superintendent for instruction for the Kalamazoo Educational Service Agency. “But it’s certainly gotten people’s attention.”

Changing expectations

Michigan’s new graduation requirements are part of a nationwide movement to improve math outcomes — and fast.

Policymakers say a college-prep curriculum should be standard in American high schools at a time when 70 percent of American teenagers go to college.  Many of the fastest-growing professions — such as health care, computer technology and finance — require higher-level math.

There’s also pressure to compete in the global economy. In a report released this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 21st in science and 25th in math scores among the top 30 industrialized nations.

The biggest factor, experts say, is a widespread attitude among Americans that downplays the importance of math skills.

“It’s socially acceptable to say, ‘I’m not good at math,’” said Tom Watkins, former Michigan schools superintendent and now an education consultant. “Nobody would say, ‘I’m not good at reading,’ but we say it about math.”

That attitude also plays out in another way — in the form of low expectations for American students, say Watkins and other educators.   In fact, a major argument against the state’s new math requirements has been the widespread belief that not all students are capable of mastering advanced algebra.

Yet “in all the high-achieving countries, the equivalent of advanced algebra is required of every student,” said Leland Cogan, senior researcher for Michigan State University’s Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education. “It’s the core of their curriculum.”

By contrast, Cogan said, the United States long has had different math tracks for different types of students. While top students were steered to rigorous math courses — there are ninth-graders in Kalamazoo County who are doing calculus — less than half of Michigan school districts had algebra as a graduation requirement when the Michigan Merit Curriculum was passed in 2005.

“We really have a vicious cycle going on,” Cogan said. “For decades, we’ve watered down math instruction for most people, and the majority of us are very poor at math, and we pass those attitudes and fears onto our children.”

Deborah Ball, dean of University of Michigan’s School of Education and a leader in math-education reform, said the average American’s math skills are “nowhere comparable to people in other countries.”

She said that for math outcomes to improve, Americans “need to see math proficiency as part of being an educated person. We’re way behind on that.”

Improving instruction

Changing attitudes and expectations is only the first step, experts say.

Instructional practices also need to improve, experts say, since teacher quality is critical when it comes to learning math.

Unlike reading, where students get considerable exposure outside of school, children’s math skills are highly dependent on what they learn in the classroom. Much more than most subjects, math depends on students mastering each concept before moving onto the next.  Students who get derailed by poor math instruction may never get back on track.

“Schools make a real difference in math education, and teachers are more important than any other factor,” Ball said.

So giving students a solid foundation in basic math skills is vitally important. But the quality of math instruction in American elementary schools, particularly the upper elementary grades, can be problematic, experts say. A big reason for that is lack of teacher training: Elementary education programs typically focus on literacy instruction, the core of the elementary curriculum.  Math often gets short shrift.

In “many, many states,” elementary teachers can pass their certification tests without knowing algebra, Cogan said. “We have a lot of elementary teachers coming out of college not really prepared to teach math.”

That’s becoming more of an issue as middle-school math classes focus more on pre-algebra and algebra, pushing what used to be the middle-school math curriculum into the upper elementary grades.

“A lot of elementary teachers are having to look hard at their preparation,” said Deb Paquette, superintendent of Bloomingdale Public Schools. “What they’re teaching now is a long way from what they were trained for.”

In secondary schools, most math teachers have a major or minor in the subject and content knowledge is less of a problem. But knowing math concepts doesn’t guarantee the ability to explain those concept to students. And that’s becoming much more of an issue as more students take higher-level math.

“It used to be that kids who did not do well in math were tracked out of math early on” in high schools, Cowart said. “Now a lot of teachers are seeing a lot of kids they haven’t seen
before (in math classes).”

Even in schools where algebra has long been required, ninth-grade algebra teachers are seeing the composition of their classes change dramatically.  Eighth-grade algebra programs are now skimming off the best students, leaving the ninth-grade class as one for struggling students.   In Kalamazoo Public Schools, for instance, the failure rate in ninth-grade algebra was 50 percent in 2009-10.

Heather Shaffer is a math teacher at Gull Lake High School. For years, her advanced algebra class consisted of top scholars. Now she has the whole range of students, including those who struggle greatly in math.

“It’s made me switch the way I teach,” she said. “I have to have more tricks up my sleeve.”

Reforms in the works

The good news is that schools are being aggressive in addressing the instructional issues.

KPS Superintendent Michael Rice said the best way to improve algebra passage rates is to get students better prepared in elementary and middle school.

To that end, Kalamazoo has revamped its K-5 math curriculum and half of its elementary schools have math specialists teaching fifth-grade math. In KPS middle schools, a new schedule has all students spending more time in core subjects, including math, and students who are below grade level are put in two math classes a day. Rice said the district also is looking at other reforms to improve math outcomes.

Other local districts also are figuring out ways to improve their math instruction.

Parchment has boosted its math-tutoring programs and has an online program for
students to retake math classes they failed. Galesburg-Augusta’s algebra teachers have received training in methods to help struggling students and has a two-week Algebra Academy in August for incoming freshmen.

Vicksburg has developed various interventions, including a math lab and after-school tutoring, with a bus available to take kids home. Portage’s list of reforms include having math literacy coaches at the middle and high schools.

One reform consistent across Kalamazoo County is putting more eighth-graders in algebra. Almost 40 percent of Kalamazoo eighth-graders are taking algebra this year, and Schoolcraft puts all of its eighth-graders in algebra.

Accelerating the middle-school math curriculum is firmly supported by Cogan.

He said the standard American math class for fourth through eighth grades tends to be repetitious and “it becomes a kind of numbing. Then students get into ninth-grade algebra, which is totally different, and it’s a horrifying experience. It’s like a bucket of Artic water on them and they just shut down.”

Seeing results

Educators and experts agree improving math education in Michigan and the United States is very much a work in progress.

Cowart worries that “we’re figuring out how to eke kids through Algebra I and Algebra II, but they still don’t have a good grasp of basic math.”

The problem, she says, is that the state’s new graduation requirements forced schools into triage mode for its high school students, when what’s really needed is a complete reworking of K-8 math instruction.  Those reforms — and results — “are going to take a lot more time to come to fruition,” she said.

Shaffer, the Gull Lake teacher, agreed with that assessment. But already, she said, she can see the benefits of higher expectations. Students are improving their skills, and some students who would have never taken advance math before are now finding they like it.

“It’s opening up the minds of kids. There are some who before wouldn’t even try,” she said.

She said the new expectations also have made her a better teacher.

“It’s more work — don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But I’m enjoying it. I’m having to try some new things, and I’m finding that the kids are enjoying it.”

The higher expectations also are appreciated by O’Bryant, the Kalamazoo mom.  Her daughter already has completed advanced algebra, she said, and while her son has a harder time with math, she’s determined he’ll be successful, too.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure he gets through,” O’Bryant said.

“We’ll get a tutor if we need to. We’ll call grandpa to help with homework. He can stay after school and get help. … You need math nowadays. You can’t get a job without it.”

Source:  Kalamazoo Gazette – MLive.com – http://goo.gl/s8Pqs

YOUR CHILD’S FIRST MATH TEACHER! – Teach Your Child to Count to 10:
Early Learning Method

Application: iCount-to-10