By Jay Mathews

Monday, August 3, 2009

The nation's most important education policymakers are holding news conferences these days. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have announced that they want states to strengthen their standards so more students will be ready for college. Dozens of governors have signed on to a plan to align their states' required high school courses so all graduates are prepared for the shock of big papers and two-hour exams at the college of their choice.

Yet in my experience, the most effective work getting high-schoolers ready for higher education is being done by classroom teachers in a thousand different ways as they adjust their rules and experiment with ideas. The innovative teachers I know would laugh if anyone suggested that they call a news conference. They are just trying stuff, they say.

To get a taste of this stealth reform, step into Room 252 at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County. That's where Bill Horkan works. The 44-year-old math teacher is a busy man. He is married, with three children ages 6, 8 and 9. His school has the largest portion of disadvantaged students in the county -- 58 percent are low-income. Many of them yearn for a good education, but learning is hard, and math is a particularly daunting challenge.

What has the overburdened Horkan done about this? Last year, he loaded up Room 252 with even more students taking one of the most challenging math courses for students like his -- International Baccalaureate Math Studies. Designed for students who are not planning to major in college math or science, the course offers advanced math topics related to technology.

The year before, he had just 14 kids in one section of IB Math Studies and 21 in the other. He set a high standard and was stubborn. He told students who tried to drop the class that they could do what they wanted but that he was not going to sign off on it, and that persuaded some to stay. All had passing scores (4 or above) on the seven-point IB exam. In the previous four years, his students averaged a 98 percent passing rate, even though the exam is written and graded by outsiders. Horkan couldn't water it down if he wanted to.

Then came the big jump. This most recent school year, Horkan acted on an unconventional insight about the way his school organized its math sequence and enrolled 57 students in IB Math Studies, 63 percent more than the previous year. In the past, the math department insisted on this sequence for average students: Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Trigonometry/Math Analysis (also called pre-calculus), then IB Math Studies. Horkan realized, after teaching this way for 11 years, that Trig/Math Analysis was not necessary for some. He talked many of his Algebra 2 students into skipping it and going right to IB Math Studies.

That was a risk. Many critics think public schools are moving students up the math ladder too quickly. Like many other districts, Fairfax wants the vast majority of students to take first-year algebra in eighth grade. Some parents are complaining. One study showed that, nationally, some of the poorest math students are being accelerated. Horkan agrees that too many students complete first-year algebra ill-prepared for the next level.

But the classroom teachers I know don't make their decisions based on the latest policy fads. They think instead about students -- not the stereotypical teens that people associate with high schools like Stuart, but the actual young people in their classes, like Alyssa, Simone, Sidra, Alex and Kalkidan in Horkan's IB math sections. Would this be good for them?

When Horkan arrived at Stuart 11 years ago, the math department chair was Stu Singer. He urged his teachers to be creative. Three years ago, the Stuart math team did so well that its students' scores on the state Standards of Learning tests were higher than any other Fairfax school except the supermagnet, Jefferson, and the super-affluent Langley, where just 1 percent of the students were low-income. That gave Horkan and his colleagues confidence. What next?

It wasn't easy to have so many students skip Trig/Math Analysis. Some of that course's teachers thought Horkan was saying that his course was better than theirs. No, he said, he just thought IB Math Studies would help average students in their tricky transition to higher ed. It was more like a college class. They would have to write a 2,000-word paper and pass a three-hour final exam, rare requirements in high school math.

His two IB Math sections swelled to 26 and 31 students. Stu Singer retired in 2008, but his replacement, Erin Sylves, didn't see any reason why Horkan shouldn't add an extra load of students to a difficult course. He told his kids that he was not going to baby them, even if some didn't have as solid a math background as his previous students. Some chapters would be very hard work, but he would help.

The results came back a couple of weeks ago. Of his 57 IB Math Studies students, 53 (93 percent) passed the IB exam. They were that much closer to college, with more confidence that they could handle tough professors and other annoyances in the next stage of their academic lives.

News spreads fast in high school. Ninety students -- a 58 percent increase -- signed up for IB Math Studies this year. Horkan calculates that by next year the expansion will mean 45 students will have passed the IB Math Studies test who would not have even taken the course in previous years. No time for a news conference. He has work to do.

*E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com*

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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