Math, science plans face hurdles

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Delora Washington at Corliss

Delora Washington at Corliss

If math teacher Delora Washington had her way, Corliss High in Pullman would be first in line to join the district’s initiative to prod schools to adopt new, improved math curricula.

In fact, at the top of her wish list is one of the three mathematics curricula the board has already selected.

“I’ve been trying to get Cognitive Tutor (a highly regarded math curriculum that includes extensive computer-based learning) for the last three years,” says Washington, who teaches calculus and advanced algebra with trigonometry, and recently won the prestigious Milken Family Foundation Educator Award. “It really makes students think about math [concepts].”

But Corliss doesn’t have the technology and manpower Cognitive Tutor requires, and that’s a problem other schools are likely to face if they decide to participate in the initiative.

“We don’t have a math lab,” Washington explains. “You can’t use it with just five computers in the classroom.” In any case, budget cuts forced the school to reassign its technology coordinator to teach a full load of classes, leaving Corliss without anyone to do computer maintenance quickly. “If you have to wait a month [for repairs], then it’s not going to work,” Washington observes.

Corliss had already adopted another math curriculum that is on the district’s preferred list, Agile Mind. But in mid-November, teachers were still undergoing training and waiting for the video projectors Agile Mind uses to show interactive animations of algebra equations. “A lot of them have reverted to using the textbook, which I was afraid they were going to do,” says Washington.

Like Washington, other teachers and curricular experts applaud the selection of high-quality math curricula that will engage students in learning. But unless teachers are trained and given adequate resources, schools will be hamstrung trying to adopt any new curricula.

The models in math and science evolved from recommendations the Office of Math and Science issued last spring. As an incentive, the office promised to match dollar-for-dollar any discretionary funds schools spent to buy the recommended materials, but the money dried up in the final budget. As a result, not many schools bought them, says Martin Gartzman, the district’s chief officer for math and science. Though the district plans to offer schools some money this time around, how much is still up in the air.

Two of the three math curricula require computers, software and other equipment. Cognitive Tutor pairs classroom discussion and problem-solving with individual, computer-based tutoring. Agile Mind is used with a textbook but works best when classrooms have LCD video projectors to enlarge charts, graphs and animations shown on a computer screen. The third model, Interactive Mathematics Project, doesn’t come with technology, but to meet the district’s requirement for a technology-based approach, software programs could be incorporated to help kids build and manipulate geometric objects or create charts and graphs using data.

Science texts not up to par

In science as well as math, lack of resources could also be a problem for schools.

National science standards promote what is called an inquiry approach, in which students learn by asking questions and developing experiments. “That’s what we’re all trying to push right now no matter what grade level or level of ability,” says Lois Jackson, science department chair at Manley High in East Garfield Park. Yet many high schools have sub-standard labs or no labs at all, hindering teachers and students from conducting experiments. (See Catalyst November 2004)

The district is promoting one model that relies more heavily on textbooks. But national experts say science textbooks generally cover too many topics and don’t help students gain a deeper understanding of key concepts. “There are serious problems with just about everything we’ve looked at,” says Jo Ellen Roseman, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061, which advocates for better science education and has reviewed biology, chemistry and physics textbooks.

To augment the textbook-based approach, the district is asking prospective curriculum developers to provide professional development to help teachers lead thoughtful class discussions. Trainers will also be expected to conduct model labs. But Victor Simon, high school science coach for Area 22, isn’t convinced that’s what they’ll deliver and wonders how a second set of trainers, brought in by outsiders, will work with area coaches, already in place. “So where does [the developer] fit in?” he asks.