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Colleges Rethink The Math Students Need

By Katherine Long, The Seattle Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — Dena DeYoung traces her trouble with math back to sixth grade, when a well-intended placement test showed she was smart enough to do advanced work.

And for several years, DeYoung did well. But when she reached high school, math became her worst subject. Lost by the logic, unable to imagine how what she was learning would ever come into play in the real world, her math grades plummeted.

“I just never got it,” DeYoung said. “I was barely scraping by. It was just a nightmare.”

DeYoung eventually dropped out of her Shoreline school, and while math was not the only reason, it didn’t help. Instead of a high school diploma, the promising student earned a General Educational Development degree, or GED.

More than any other subject, math trips up students who might otherwise thrive in college, especially those who don’t plan to go into technical careers that require proficiency with numbers.

Failing the state’s math test keeps hundreds of students from graduating from high school each year, even when they’ve met every other requirement. Math is the reason why half of Washington’s high school students who enter community college must take remedial classes — which few ever pass, even after years of struggle.

A lot of effort has gone into thinking — and arguing — about how best to teach math, hoping to keep it from being such a barrier to higher education. But the math problem also has caused leaders of Washington’s community colleges to ask a fundamental question: How much math, and what kind, should be required for a student to earn a college degree?

Their answer, increasingly, is that there is no one answer.

Students who are studying to become nurses, social workers, early-childhood educators or carpenters may never use intermediate algebra, much less calculus. Yet for years, community colleges have used a one-size-fits-all math approach that’s heavy on algebra and preps students for calculus.

That’s starting to change in a few pioneering schools that are overhauling what math they teach and how they teach it. Some colleges, for example, have started to offer a math sequence that focuses on statistics, and persuaded the state’s four-year colleges to accept it as a college math credit. Others are offering a learn-at-your-own-pace approach.

These experiments, to date, are small but encouraging. The word is spreading about algebra alternatives, many of which include the kind of math students are more likely to need, such as probability and margins of error in opinion polls. Students are flocking to such classes — and they’re passing at much higher rates.

One study found that a statistics-focused class, identical to one offered at Seattle Central College, had triple the success rate when compared with the traditional math sequence, and students finished math in half the time.

DeYoung, now 26, enrolled in Seattle Central’s version of that sequence last year, called Statway, but with the nagging concern that she’d soon hit a wall — just like in high school.

But that didn’t happen.

“In the first quarter, I realized there isn’t something wrong with me,” DeYoung said. “I just needed a different approach.”

Seattle Central is one of 19 colleges nationally using Statway, which was developed by the Carnegie Foundation. (The foundation has also developed a program called Quantway that uses math skills to solve real-world problems.)

It’s one of the programs highlighted in a new math strategic plan that calls for all of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges to find new, innovative ways to approach math.

“For too many students, the pre-college math experience at community and technical colleges has been frustration and failure,” the plan notes.

The beginnings of that plan reach back to 2009, when the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges began its latest round of puzzling over how to help more students pass.

In the plan, the State Board encourages colleges to find ways to accelerate a student’s path through math. As a result, some are allowing students to take both pre-college math and college-level math in the same quarter. Others, like Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, offer math that doesn’t follow a rigid schedule — students do as much math as they can complete in a quarter’s time.

The vexing issue of students getting stuck in remedial math is not new. It’s long been recognized as a problem, but one without a clear solution. Now colleges have models to try.

So far, 14 schools in Washington have made learn-at-your-own-pace math widely available to students. Statway is offered at another three.

Last winter, more than four times as many students signed up for Big Bend’s learn-at-your-own-pace math classes, called “emporium math,” as traditionally taught and online-only courses.

Statway folds remedial math and one-quarter of college math into a three-quarter series, which satisfies the requirement that students pass one quarter of college math to graduate. In Statway, students study statistics used in everyday life — in polls and studies, for example — and learn how to analyze data and make inferences.

It is, simply, “the best math for citizens,” said Seattle Central Statway instructor Paul Verschueren.

Verschueren believes students often struggle with high school algebra because they’re taught to memorize formulas. And while that’s efficient in the short term, he said, students don’t develop an understanding of the underlying concepts. Statway, in contrast, aims to build math intuition.

“People don’t understand how malleable numbers are,” he said. “We have petrified students who are always afraid of the wrong move.”

One other possible advantage: Statway students stay together through all three quarters, and over those nine months, students get to know each other and their instructor, which helps their confidence and makes it easier to lean on one another for help.

“It’s more like real-life math,” said Seattle Central student Shayla Martin, 34, who is working on a bachelor’s degree in applied behavioral sciences. “It’s the first time I’ve ever used the word ‘interesting’ to describe a math class.”

Should Statway count as a math credit? All of the state’s public four-year universities accept it, including the University of Washington. But the UW is doing so on a three-year trial basis.

Janice DeCosmo, a UW associate dean who has a leading role in deciding which community-college courses are transferable for UW credit, calls Statway “a very engaging curriculum,” but warns that it can limit students’ career choices because it doesn’t prepare them to take calculus.

To be accepted as a freshman or transfer student at the UW, all students must have intermediate algebra or its equivalent on their transcripts. That’s because many non-math courses — in sociology, geology and other sciences — depend on an understanding of algebra. The version of Statway offered in Washington’s community colleges includes extra lessons in algebra, which is why the UW accepts it as a transfer credit. (Along with Seattle Central, Statway is also offered at South Seattle and Tacoma community colleges.)

Even some Statway instructors say the class — while important — isn’t really a math class. Seattle Central instructor Bryan Johns, for example, thinks of the course as a logic and communications class because the math involved is so basic.

But it’s clearly helping students get beyond remedial math, and on to credit-bearing courses.

The first year Statway was offered at Seattle Central, 58 percent of students passed the three-class series. By the third year, 84 percent of students passed. By comparison, only between 11 and 15 percent of students who need to take remedial classes ever finish those courses, and complete one quarter of college math by the end of one year.

While Statway re-imagines what it means to be math literate, the emporium program at Big Bend Community College is rethinking the way math is taught.

The Moses Lake college still offers traditional courses made up of three pre-college algebra classes — introduction to algebra, and algebra I and II.

But it is having more success when students take those classes using videos and computers.

In emporium math, topics have been chopped up into mini-lessons, and delivered through short videos recorded by Big Bend instructors. Students watch the videos, then test their understanding, entering answers in a computer program that gives them immediate feedback.

In the computer lab one day in July, about 20 students worked in front of monitors as classical music played softly in the background. Some wore headphones to watch a video, and others used calculators and scratch pads to work out math problems.

When they got stuck, they raised their hands, and one of the tutors circling the room came to help.

Math instructor Michele Sherwood sat at the instructor’s desk, waiting for students to come to her with completed math tests — the tests are a key to moving to a next level. Sherwood walked students through problems they answered incorrectly.

“I don’t know what happened here,” one student told her, pointing to a wrong answer.

“Oh, I see what you did,” Sherwood said. “This is supposed to be 10.”

Big Bend made emporium math part of the curriculum in 2014. By winter quarter 2015, between 61 and 69 percent of students taking math the emporium way received at least a C or higher in the three algebra classes offered. That was generally better than students taking a traditional or online class, although the emporium method did not perform quite as well with algebra I students, who did better in a traditional setting.

Students also can work at an accelerated pace, and often complete two quarters’ worth of math in one quarter, said Sarah Adams, the instructor who oversees Big Bend’s emporium program. That saves them about $500, since they only pay for five credits each quarter, regardless of how much math they finish.

The emporium model was pioneered at Virginia Tech University in 1997, at an off-campus shopping mall (hence the name “emporium”) equipped with hundreds of computers and dozens of roving tutors. Along with 14 schools in Washington state, a number of other schools around the country now use it, at both the two- and four-year level.

At Big Bend, instructors have created their own lessons rather than using a commercial set that Adams said “is super expensive and wasn’t going to exactly cover what we wanted them to learn.”

Emporium math has been an ideal solution for Big Bend student Mari Chastain, who often floundered in high school because she has dyslexia — a learning disability that causes numbers to reverse themselves on the page. With emporium math, she can go as slowly as she needs.

The program attracts strong math students as well. Kayla Brown, a student who’s working on her nursing degree, flew through algebra, and still had time to slow down for the few concepts that stumped her.

Another student — a mom with six children — reportedly blazed through the work on her smartphone, mostly at night at home.

And with more students getting through remedial classes and beyond, higher-level math classes are filling up, too, along with classes that demand strong math skills.

This fall, Big Bend’s engineering class is full. And for the first time ever, there’s a waiting list for calculus.
(Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, a New York-based nonprofit that works to spread the practice of solutions-oriented journalism. Education Lab is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Photo: Student tutor Angie Foster, right, helps student Krystal Huffman with a math problem at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Wash., which offers learn-at-your-own-pace math classes, called “emporium math.” (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Studying Abroad, U.S. Students Catch A Wave In Cuba

By Michael Matza, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

HAVANA — Crossing the campus of Cuba’s premier university, Janelle Crilley passes a mural portraying corporate America as a sharp-toothed ogre trampling black hills labeled “99 percent.”

The Earth, torn to shreds by the ogre’s bite, is in its paws. Grappling hooks strain to drag down the beast.

In a country virtually devoid of commercial advertising, such anti-imperialist images and slogans abound.

Studying in a communist country is an adventurous choice for any American. But the 21-year-old Crilley and her classmates in a one-of-a-kind program run here by Arcadia University were treated this spring to an extra dose: They were among the first eyewitnesses to the reactions and aspirations of ordinary Cubans as the U.S. and Cuba start to repair ties severed a half-century ago.

“It’s been exciting,” said Crilley, an Arcadia junior from Schnecksville, Pa. “There has been a lot of interest in us as Americans. People asking us about our opinions” — and sharing their hopes that a diplomatic thaw is near.

Her primary course on U.S.-Cuba relations — presented from Cuba’s point of view — opened a window on Cuba’s psyche. Over months on the island, Crilley also glimpsed the signs of a rapprochement:

The Stars-and-Stripes-print clothing popping up on Havana streets.

The paquete, a weekly download of arts, culture and music from all over, which circulates surreptitiously via thumb drives, but no one really knows its source.

The state-run channel that broadcasts CBS’ hit “The Good Wife” every morning in English, with Spanish subtitles.
Who knew?

“When we signed up we didn’t realize that (Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro) would call for a closer relationship,” Crilley said as she dangled her feet over the seawall of the Malecon, Havana’s famous oceanside drive. Ninety miles across the water lay Florida.

As the months passed, “we were hoping the U.S. Embassy would open while we were here so we could go see that,” she said. “Not yet.”

Last week, days before their eye-opening semester at the University of Havana was to end, Crilley watched the sunset with five of her six classmates.

One, Jessica Perez, 21, of Bridgehampton, N.Y., also attends Arcadia, the Glenside, Pa., university with a reputation for topflight international study programs.

While about 50 American colleges run Cuba programs lasting a week to a few months, only Arcadia maintains a presence in Cuba across the fall, spring and summer semesters, said Tim Barton, director of student services at Arcadia’s College of Global Studies, which began its residential program here in 2013.

The other students on the seawall with Crilley and Perez attend colleges that participated in Arcadia’s program. All arrived here on Jan. 22. Alexa Posner, of Colorado, is from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Hannah Garcia, of Tennessee, is from Lipscomb University in Nashville. Rebecca Acebal of New Jersey, attends Georgetown University.

Jade Harvey, 19, of Los Angeles, is from Yale University. Kylie Grow, 20, who grew up in Cheltenham, Pa., attends the University of Virginia. They’re the group’s politics junkies.

“Some of the Cubans we talk to are slightly concerned about a new wave of imperialism from the U.S.,” said Harvey, “but that in no way overrides their excitement at the thought of having the economic sanctions taken down. That is the one big thing everyone here talks about.”

Diplomatic relations between the countries collapsed in 1961, two years after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, and a year before Russian nuclear missiles aimed at America were discovered on Cuban soil, producing the missile crisis and showdown that forced their removal.

A punishing U.S. embargo on Cuba’s economy followed. And while the two nations have occasionally traded barbs, neither side has blinked.

In December, seeking to end the “outdated approach” that for more than half a century has failed to bring democracy to Cuba, Obama announced policy changes aimed at warming relations.

He eased restrictions on U.S.-citizen travel to the island and called for the reopening of a U.S. embassy in Havana. He instructed the State Department to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. He called for an easing of certain commercial activity outside the general economic embargo.

“It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people,” he said, “to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

The next month, as Crilley headed for Cuba, where Internet access is abysmal, she tweeted: “Going off the grid for a while! Adios amigos.”

She and her fellow students said last week that they feel transformed by their exposure to Cuban people and to the flip side view of world events they had studied in America.

Elena Moreno, of Spain, Arcadia’s resident director, said it felt like “walking into history” when she took the job two years ago.

“I felt things were going to change, and that is happening now” but slowly, she said. “The (Cuban and American) people really do not have anything against one another, and that is something our students could feel.”

The power of the cross-cultural exchange seemed to come across most strongly in their political economy class, where the American and Cuban students were graded on their responses to a number of questions, including: Does the American Dream exist?

Some Cuban students, citing challenges for immigrants and racial minorities in America, said, “How can the American Dream exist if there is not equal opportunity?”

That drew a response from other Cubans in the class, Harvey recalled.

“Well, we have equal opportunity,” they said, citing universal access to free education and health care in Cuba, “but is there any such thing as the Cuban Dream? Not really, because there is not much space to grow.”

It was the A-side and the flip side of a teachable moment.

Photo: Students participating in the Arcadia University semester abroad in Havana, Cuba, at the University of Havana, talk and walk on an outing on May 12, 2015. The girls are, from left, Alexa Peterson Posner, Macalester College; Jade Harvey, Yale; Janelle Crilley, Arcadia University; and Kylie Grow, UVA. (Clem Murray/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Best Teachers Can’t Get Hired By Public Schools

By Francis Barry, Bloomberg News (TNS)

To understand why the U.S. education system is mired in mediocrity, start by listening to Scott McKim’s story.

McKim can claim a master’s degree in watershed science, an undergraduate degree in meteorology, with minors in math and physics, and statewide teacher of the year honors for his work as a math and science teacher at a middle school in Alaska. In his free time, he led a student club that installed a wind turbine, started a cafeteria composting program, and built a greenhouse. He also helped develop a charter school devoted to outdoor education and STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — and managed to get a second master’s in teaching, with a focus on science and math instruction.

As STEM subjects become increasingly important, McKim is exactly the kind of teacher the U.S. needs more of. Yet now, at least in New York state, he can’t get a job teaching at a public school.

McKim and his wife wanted to move from Alaska to the Adirondacks in upstate New York. But it was easier to get certified in Vermont than New York, so McKim moved to Vermont, figuring he would teach for a year there and then transfer his certification to New York. Initially, the plan worked — he got his teaching certification from Vermont and taught middle school science and math. But when he tried to get certified in New York, he was told, in effect: Go back to school.

In New York, McKim could have taken exams to become certified to teach Earth science — but nothing else. That presented two problems. First, there were no Earth science openings where he wanted to live. Second, in rural areas, schools often don’t have enough students to employ a full-time Earth science teacher, so getting a job can require teaching multiple subjects.

But to teach math and physics in New York, McKim needed ten more credits in physics and eight more credits in math — even though he has a minor in each and experience teaching both. For McKim, investing the time and money necessary to prove his academic credentials — after all he had already achieved inside and outside the classroom — “wasn’t too appealing.”

Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state education department, declined to comment on McKim’s case, but said that certification requires coursework equivalent to an undergraduate major: “Strong content preparation in undergraduate coursework is an essential element in teacher preparation and certification.”

Helpful, beneficial, useful — sure. But essential? The author Jonathan Franzen, who received a B.A. in German with an English minor and once taught fiction writing at Swarthmore College and Columbia University, wouldn’t be eligible to teach American literature to middle school students in New York. Similarly, New York is working to recruit computer science teachers, yet if Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg applied for jobs, the state would tell the Harvard dropouts to finish college first — and after that, they would need to complete a master’s degree to obtain a permanent certification.

Of course, a successful career does not a great teacher make, and it’s reasonable to require professional development work for those without traditional qualifications. But rather than ruling them categorically unqualified, if they can’t cut it as teachers, allow them to be fired, as would happen in any other profession. But rather than making it easier to fire bad teachers, states are making it harder to hire good ones.

McKim supports high standards for teacher certification: “Much of what is wrong with our educational system can be traced back to colleges/universities not adequately preparing teachers,” he wrote in an e-mail. That’s a problem that New York and other states are tackling. But there is a world of difference between a certification system that is intellectually rigorous and one that is bureaucratically rigid.

As states move toward a set of common standards for students through Common Core, they ought to do the same for teachers, allowing them to move from state to state without difficulty. At the same time, principals ought to have the flexibility to hire teachers based on their ability and experience, not their academic credits.

The problem can also run in the opposite direction: In some states, teachers can actually be penalized for having too many credits. In Vermont, for instance, a master’s degree isn’t required, and since union contracts usually mandate higher salaries for teachers with advanced degrees, “instead of hiring based on merit,” McKim says, “districts are forced to hire based on cost.”

Despite being deemed unqualified, McKim decided to move to New York anyway, where he eventually found a teaching job — as an adjunct college professor. That’s a loss for the local middle school students and a troubling sign for the future of education in the U.S.

Photo: wecometolearn via Flickr