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ALGEBRA FOR ALL The Push for Higher Math

At Fairfax High, Another Approach As System Tries to Up Subject Appeal

With educators working to reinforce the importance of learning math in today's tech-based economy, Post reporter Michael Alison Chandler is retaking high school algebra.

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

Many of the sophomores and juniors in Algebra II at Fairfax High School are barely verbal at 7:20 a.m. Some yawn or disappear into hooded sweatshirts as the teacher whizzes through linear equations and inverse functions, launching into a course that a growing chorus of educators, politicians and business leaders insist will be crucial to their futures.

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"Nothing like a little math to wake you up in the morning," teacher Tricia Colclaser said this month after a taxing word problem.

Abstract math is not known for its stirring effect on U.S. teenagers. But algebra is viewed as increasingly essential for college or careers in a technology-based economy. Some advocates call it the new literacy.

Strengthening the math abilities of all students is a steep challenge. Educators must reinforce basic concepts early on, attract teachers talented enough to go beyond dictating formulas, and, not least, overcome an anti-math bias many students harbor that all the hours spent mixing letters and numbers yield more punishment than possibility.

How hard can it be?

The question led this reporter back to high school to try again, as a student in Colclaser's class. To prepare, I reviewed Virginia's Algebra II Standards of Learning exam. The 50 questions conjured familiar anxiety but little actual math. I then fumbled through a state Algebra I test, getting at most 10 answers right.

Over the school year, The Washington Post will revisit scatter plots and polynomials, word problems and standardized tests to explore how and why math education is ramping up. The series will examine how ready students and teachers are for the change, and what it takes to convince a roomful of teenagers -- whose parents probably could not help them with their homework -- that, yes, they might actually use algebra later in life.

Things were different when Henry Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, began teaching in the 1960s. As many as half the students at his Iowa City high school opted for general or consumer math, which repeated middle school topics such as fractions and percentages, Kepner said. "They did not push mathematical thinking."

Now, middle school students nationwide are pushed to take first-year algebra, and California will soon test all eighth-graders in the subject. About half of Fairfax County middle school students took Algebra I last year, up from 35 percent a decade ago. And 90 percent of the county's high school graduates took Algebra II, up from 60 percent. Nationwide, three-quarters of graduates in 2005 took the second-year course, up from about half in 1987.

In room A-142, a projector flashed a diagram of types of numbers, both real and imaginary. The former included rational and irrational numbers, integers, whole numbers and natural numbers.

Students practiced classification. One-eighth is a fraction, so it can't be irrational, they volunteered. Zero-eighths equals zero, so it must be a whole number. What about 8/0? Hmmm. Rational? Nope. "This number does not even exist," Colclaser said.

Algebra II "gets a lot more abstract than Algebra I," warned Colclaser, 29, a teacher with more than five years of experience and two mathematics degrees. Math concepts build on each other, so if students get lost at the beginning, she said, "it's not good."


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