Students, Teachers Tackle Algebra

By Maria Glod

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Joanne Tegethoff teaches algebra. Never mind that her students carry Disney princess and Thomas the Tank Engine backpacks and have the alphabet taped on their desks. The Montgomery County first-graders one recent afternoon were learning to write "number sentences" to help Lucy Ladybug. "Lucy wakes up and puts five spots on her back," Tegethoff told the class. "Then she gets confused. She wants 10 spots. What's missing?"

Tegethoff used to teach what she called "very boring math," using worksheets of addition and subtraction problems. Now her lessons delve into algebraic thinking. By the third grade, Viers Mill Elementary students are solving equations with letter variables.

Long considered a high school staple, introductory algebra is fast becoming a standard course in middle school for college-bound students. That trend is putting new pressure on such schools as Viers Mill to insert the building blocks of algebra into math lessons in the earliest grades. Disappointing U.S. scores on international math tests have added to the urgency of a movement that is rippling into kindergarten. At stake, some politicians say, is the country's ability to produce enough scientists and engineers to compete in the global economy.

But education experts say students aren't the only ones who need more rigorous instruction. Too many elementary school teachers, they say, lack the know-how to teach math effectively.

"You can't teach what you don't know, and your students won't love the subject unless you love the subject," Kenneth I. Gross, a University of Vermont mathematics and education professor, recently told a group of college mathematicians at a conference hosted by the U.S. Education Department and the National Science Foundation. "All of mathematics depends on what kids do in the elementary grades. If you don't do it right, you're doing remedial work all the way up to college. Arithmetic, algebra and geometry are intertwined."

Gross and others say many elementary and middle school teachers -- generalists relied on to teach reading, science and social studies and even to make sure a child's coat is zipped -- are drawn to teaching by a love of children and literacy. Most had little exposure to high-level math in college and are more at home with words than numbers.

"Many of them fear math," said Vickie Inge, math outreach director with the University of Virginia's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. "Many of them had trouble with math themselves."

Educators, mathematicians and business leaders are working to bridge the knowledge gap. At an increasing number of schools, including Viers Mill, teachers work with a coach who helps boost their math knowledge, plan lessons and examine student work. The National Math & Science Initiative, funded by ExxonMobil, and the National Science Foundation are granting universities and school systems millions of dollars for programs to produce better math and science teachers.

In February, a panel of educators and mathematicians appointed by President Bush is slated to recommend ways schools can produce more algebra-savvy students. The panel will lay out skills students need to have starting in third grade to master algebra down the road. It will also recommend ways to improve teacher preparation.

Test scores released this month reignited concerns about math education in the United States. The Program for International Student Assessment found that 15-year-olds in the United States trailed peers from 23 industrialized countries in math.

What's more, Michigan State University professor William Schmidt found that U.S. teachers scored at the bottom of the pack on an algebra test in a recent study of middle school math teachers from six countries. Teachers in Korea and Taiwan, where students earn high marks on international tests, had the best scores.

"The U.S. performance was weak," Schmidt said. He found that U.S. and Mexican teachers had taken far less advanced undergraduate math courses than peers in Taiwan and Korea. He also found math knowledge isn't enough. Teachers also need strong training in instructional techniques.

In Virginia, George Mason University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and three other universities have teamed with local K-12 systems to improve math teaching through a master's degree program in math and educational leadership for elementary and middle school teachers. The program, begun in 2002, has about 60 graduates, who have returned to their schools and become a resource for colleagues.

Virginia Commonwealth University math professor William E. Haver, who is involved in the partnership, said elementary teachers need to know far more than the standard curriculum. With a depth of knowledge, teachers can help children understand relationships between numbers and solve problems in different ways. Without it, teachers often rely on memorization and aren't well-equipped to help struggling students.

"Elementary math isn't elementary," Haver said. "There are a lot of deep ideas there. Usually, if a child doesn't get the right answer, there's a fair amount of good thinking along the way, but it got astray at some point. If you can pinpoint that problem, you're better off."

Gross runs the Vermont Mathematics Initiative, a graduate program that has trained more than 160 elementary teachers in math leadership. He drew an analogy to elementary reading instruction. "Would you want a teacher who has read 'Dick and Jane'?" he asked. "Or would you want a teacher who has read Shakespeare and the masters and has a fondness for reading?"

Results in Vermont are promising. In schools with the math leaders, students are earning better math test scores than peers in similar schools. Achievement of students from poor families has also risen.

Judy Schneider, a 25-year teacher who is a math specialist at Widewater Elementary School in Stafford County, is midway through the Virginia program. She helps teachers understand math and reach students through dynamic lessons. Recently, she helped a fifth-grade teacher who was preparing to teach a lesson on fractions but didn't understand the material.

Math wasn't always Schneider's strong suit, but after taking courses in algebra, geometry and statistics, she is able to help colleagues improve.

"I was such a bad math student as a child, all the way through high school and even into college," she said. "Math was something I struggled with, and all of a sudden algebra makes sense to me. I want it to make sense for the kids."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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