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ALGEBRA FOR ALL The Push for Higher Math

Algebra for All: Educators Challenge Idea That Math Skills Must Come Naturally

Fairfax High junior Mary O'Brien gets help in math from classmate John Gillen and teacher Tricia Colclaser. O'Brien, an honors student, says she has struggled with the subject for years.
Fairfax High junior Mary O'Brien gets help in math from classmate John Gillen and teacher Tricia Colclaser. O'Brien, an honors student, says she has struggled with the subject for years. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fairfax High School junior Mary O'Brien memorizes German verb conjugations, rows on a crew team several days a week and relishes delving into an 800-page Russian novel. But the honors student is flummoxed by fractions and functions.

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"Why didn't I get the good math genes?" she said with a groan one spring day as she counted out squares on graph paper and connected three points to form a wobbly parabola. "My life would be so much easier."

To counter the notion that mathematics ability is inscribed in DNA, school officials and corporate executives are waging a public relations campaign for the hearts and minds of the average math student. Their goal is to immerse more middle school students in algebra and toughen high school math requirements so graduates can compete for increasingly technical jobs. Their message: Advanced math is not only for rocket scientists.

"We are trying to find more and more ways to get the youth of America engaged," said William H. Swanson, chief executive of Raytheon. The Massachusetts-based defense contractor gives out math and science scholarships and is designing a math-oriented attraction at Disney World's Epcot. It also has brought professional football players to school rallies to talk about math in sports, tackling a stereotype that math is for nerds.

Celebrities also are trying to bring glamour to the quadratic formula. Danica McKellar, who played Winnie Cooper in the television series "The Wonder Years," proved a mathematical theorem in college and has written two books, including "Math Doesn't Suck," to introduce math concepts to teenage girls through examples about cliques and shopping.

Math-themed contests abound. Some offer rewards for students who design robots. Travis Grenier, a student from Rocky Mount, Va., was honored by the National Math and Science Initiative in March for an animated video he produced to rap music called "Crank Dat Calculus."

To be sure, math apathy remains pervasive. "You don't need math," many students say. "I was never good at math, either," adults reply. Such refrains, said Henry "Hank" Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, "send a message that you don't have to try."

Researchers are amassing evidence on the power of motivation.

In a 2007 study that she co-authored, Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck charted the progress of two groups of seventh-graders in New York City who received similar instruction in math and study skills. One of the groups also learned about the changing nature of intelligence, specifically a theory that the brain forms new connections when you learn new things, a process that can boost intelligence. Students who learned it is possible to grow smarter were more likely to improve their math grades; the others kept sliding in performance.

In many countries, math has long been recognized as a tough subject that can be mastered through hard work, said Tom Loveless, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who analyzes international math test results and cultural differences. Efforts to make math more fun or dress up textbooks are not the answer, he said.

The Washington Post has been examining attitudes toward math this school year at Fairfax High. In an informal survey of more than 300 math students there, most tied their affection for math to their performance or ability. Those who said they like math often said it "comes naturally" or "makes sense" or is "easy." Those who do not like math said it is "too hard" or "confusing."

As students progress from one math course to another, some can get deeply, darkly lost. Although it is possible to pick up virtually any chapter in a history book and learn something new, one expert said, an advanced chapter of math could read like Greek to a student unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the concepts. The risk of frustration is high. So is the need for math teachers who can ably explain complex topics.


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