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.

"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."

Every other day, in an 80-minute block punctuated by the Pledge of Allegiance, she will march through quadratic equations and rational functions to ready students for a year-end exam and, she hopes, pre-calculus or another advanced class.

Ninety-eight percent of Algebra II students at Fairfax High, and 90 percent in Virginia, passed the state test last spring. But Colclaser said her class goes far beyond state standards. Some who earned passing marks from the state received D's or F's in the class.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress has shown steady gains in math over two decades, even though less than 40 percent of eighth-graders in 2007 were rated proficient or above. Scores were lower for those from poor families. But mathematical struggles and angst pervade society, appearing even in high-performing schools such as Fairfax High.

That's not surprising in a country where stores in the early 1990s sold a Barbie that said, "Math class is tough!" and highly educated people often are embarrassed to admit they cannot balance a checkbook. A 2007 survey of more than 700 Algebra I teachers found that when asked to name their greatest challenge, the most overwhelmingly frequent response was "working with unmotivated students."

Americans tend to treat math like the violin, said Larry R. Faulkner, chairman of a presidential math advisory panel convened in 2006. They pick it up for a while, and if they quickly show aptitude, they are encouraged to pursue it. "Otherwise, they will drop it and go on to something else," he said.

The last time the United States ratcheted up math expectations, after the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, schools focused on the most talented students, said Richard J. Murnane, an economist at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

For decades, a save-the-math-for-the-math-people attitude prevailed in schools. Now, the expansion of state standards and testing is lifting expectations for all.

"There is a recognition that we need everybody to learn to become expert thinkers," Murnane said. "That is a brand-new challenge."

Industry leaders have sounded alarms about competitiveness, pointing to middling U.S. performance on international exams. Some analysts reply that Americans have advantages not shown in scores. Still, there is wide agreement that, as jobs are sent overseas or lost to technological innovation, a middle-class paycheck is far more likely to require higher math skills and higher education.

"The kinds of skills that make people successful as employees are the same skills that make students successful in college . . . learning skills, the ability to think critically, abstract thinking. That's really what Algebra II is all about," said Brian K. Fitzgerald, executive director of the Business-Higher Education Forum, a group of Fortune 500 chief executives and university presidents.

Research shows that those who complete Algebra II are more than twice as likely to graduate from college as those who do not. They are also better positioned for admission to competitive colleges. And those who pursue advanced math are likely to have more career options.

The National Science Board estimates that jobs in science, technology and engineering are growing at three times the rate of jobs overall. But many jobs in other fields rely on data analysis, which requires some algebraic skills.

Keisha Sogueco, 16, a junior in Colclaser's class who described herself as "not really a math person," said she agrees that math is important because it "keeps you thinking." But asked how function notation may play a role later in life, she said, "I'm not really sure."

This classmate is trying to answer the same question. For now, we are preoccupied with plodding through an 1,100-page textbook, solving word problems that involve Mr. Ito filling up a tank of water at the rate of nine gallons per minute and graphing equations point by point.

*Tomorrow's Schools & Learning page addresses math for grades 3 to 5.*

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

View all comments that have been posted about this article.