Learning math the interactive way

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At Kelvyn Park High in Hermosa, all freshman algebra teachers use Cognitive Tutor, a well-regarded, interactive program that aims to engage students in mathematical problem-solving at their own pace.

Last year, “our department chair gave us all two days a week in the computer lab,” says math teacher Eugenie Alvares, who trained her colleagues to use the program.

Students in Kelvyn Park’s Gear Up program, a federally funded college readiness initiative, are also using the program, one of the technology-based components of the district’s strategy to lower failure rates in algebra, the most commonly failed high school course.

Mayra Garcia, an entering Kelvyn Park freshman from Ames Middle School, started using Cognitive Tutor on Saturdays last year with Gear Up. During the summer, she used it in Step Up to High School, the district’s voluntary program for incoming 9th-graders who posted below-average math and reading scores in 8th grade. Garcia will start Algebra 1 this fall with seven of the software’s 33 units already under her belt.

Garcia says she appreciated how the software breaks problems up into steps, especially word problems, and also likes the variety of problems used to teach a skill. “I’m learning different kinds of things. I get new problems each time.”

As part of its High School Transformation Plan, the district’s recommended math curricula includes Cognitive Tutor and another program, Agile Mind. Schools that will be participating in the transformation plan this year will receive financial help to buy either of the programs.

Technology is also a component of another strategy the district is using to cut algebra failure rates: Double-period algebra classes, now required for incoming freshmen whose math performance is low.

Still, CPS officials stress that better curricula and teacher training are also part of the package.

“The way [students] catch up is to spend more time on task,” notes Bret Feranchak, director of program evaluation for the district, who says kids learning algebra often struggle with skills such as proportional reasoning, graphing and representation of variables. “But if you don’t also do things better, not just more, it’s not productive.”