Math at McMurray: Teachers attempt some new approaches

As concerns grow about Vashon High Schoolers’ struggles with math, teachers at McMurray Middle School are spearheading programs they hope will better prepare their students for the rigors of high school math.

The new programs come as the middle school adopts the national math standards and works to assure that all students are proficient in basic math skills before entering high school.

Following the state’s adoption of the national math standards in July, McMurray math teachers spent the summer piecing together curriculum to assure that their classes meet the new standards — a requirement the district must meet by 2013 — and will adequately prepare students for their high school classes.

“I’m actually teaching one step of algebra in sixth grade now,” said McMurray math teacher Jenny Granum. “We’ve increased our standards and expectations to prepare kids for algebra. … We have to step it up to make sure every kid can graduate high school.”

And as the teachers push their middle schoolers to learn a little bit more before high school, they’re also getting ready to begin two  supplementary programs — one they believe will assure all students are proficient in basic math skills and one they hope will give them a deeper understanding of concepts through real-world application.

Beginning next month, all middle schoolers will spend one math period a week doing individual work on small laptops. They’ll work with the much-hailed Kahn Academy, an interactive Internet program recently featured in “The Economist,” which suggested the new online program could become the math and science education tool of the future.

The students will take computer quizzes on the Kahn Academy site, and the program, which can assess each student’s strengths and weaknesses, will then give them lessons in specific concepts.

Quiz results are delivered in real time to the teacher, who will spend the period working one-on-one with students who need help. Some children may use the program to catch up on basic skills such as simple multiplication and division, Granum said, while others will use the time to work ahead, learning concepts the class hasn’t begun yet.

Last week one of Granum’s sixth-grade math classes previewed the Kahn Academy, which all McMurray math classes will begin using next month.

“It’s really a time we can individualize for what children need,” Granum said. “It’s not just for struggling children, but for kids who are excelling at math and need more of a challenge. They can go as far as it will take them.”

McMurray principal Greg Allison believes McMurray students will be more engaged in math by using the computer program, which gives on-screen re-wards when students complete levels.

“It’s kind of a motivator for kids,” he said.

Allison said that although he isn’t concerned about the middle school’s state test scores — almost 80 percent of eighth graders passed the state test last year, compared with 50 percent statewide — he’s pleased the Kahn Academy will help to meet each student’s needs.

“We are significantly better than the state (scores),” Allison said. “That’s not to say we don’t want to improve. We’re always looking to help every kid become better math students.”

Following a national trend, Vashon students’ math scores have consistently dropped when they were tested again their sophomore year of high school. Last year 67 percent of Vashon 10th graders passed the national test, compared with 41 percent nationwide.

Roxanne Lyons, director of instructional services at the school district, said that concern about math at the school district began to grow a little over a year ago, after high school teachers noticed that many students either didn’t have their basic math skills down or couldn’t solve simple math problems as easily as they should have.

“Our teachers were finding that our students could get the right answer, but not as fast as the teacher thought would benefit them in higher math at the high school. … It would get in the way of bigger, more complicated concepts,” she said.

Parents, too, noticed that many high schoolers seemed to struggle in math and often sought help outside the classroom from tutors. They brought up their concerns to at least one district “Let’s Talk” meeting last winter.

Lyons said the school district hopes that the Kahn Academy, which it is piloting this year, will help middle school students enter high school better prepared for their math classes.

A few other classes at the middle and high school level are also trying out the program, which can take students through calculus and includes other subject areas as well, Lyons said. Middle school math teachers could more easily work the program into their schedules this year, she said, as they are required to cover fewer concepts than the more rigorous high school classes. But if it’s successful, she said, the Kahn Academy could one day be used in high school math and science classes as well.

“The district is very interested and curious to see how well it works,” Lyons said. “I think we’re going to find applications in many ways we haven’t imagined yet.”

The school district received a $10,000 grant from Washington STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to cover the extra teacher work hours required by the Kahn Academy as well as another new program to be implemented in the spring.

Granum, who is heading the second project, will work with engineers involved in the construction of the new high school to develop construction-related math problems for the middle schoolers to work though.

For example, Lyons said, students might calculate the angles of roofs or determine how many gallons of paint should be purchased for a specific building. They hope to even take students to the construction site for some problems.

“The children who aren’t super engaged in math in the classroom, they don’t see it connecting with their lives,” Granum said. “Whenever they can make those connections and see how (math) is used in all areas and aspects, that’s a valuable tool.”

Like the Kahn Academy, Lyons says, teachers are still determining how the program will fit into their classroom routine and grading. But she has high hopes for both new programs and praised what she called the innovation of the teachers who are making them a reality at the school.

“They are taking the risk to try something we have good reason to believe will dramatically enhance our students’ math success and better prepare them for high school math,” she said.


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