August 17, 2009

Calculating the best way for teaching algebra

What’s the best formula for teaching algebra? Immersing students in their course work, or easing them into learning the new skills? Or does a combination of the two techniques add up to the best strategy? Researchers at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins are aiming to find out through a federally funded study that will span 18 schools in five states this fall.

The study, now in its second year of data collection, will evaluate two ways to teach algebra to ninth-graders, determining if one approach is more effective in increasing mathematics skills and performance or whether the two approaches are equally effective. Participating schools in North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Utah and Virginia will be randomly assigned to one of two strategies for the 2009–2010 school year; to be eligible, students must not have previously taken Algebra I. Twenty-eight high schools were studied during the 2008–2009 school year.

One strategy, called Stretch Algebra, is a yearlong course in Algebra 1 with students attending classes of 70 to 90 minutes a day for two semesters. This approach gives students a “double dose” of algebra, with time to work on fundamental mathematics skills as needed.

The second strategy is a sequence of two courses, also taught in extended class   periods. During the first semester, students take a course called Transition to Advanced Mathematics, followed by the district’s Algebra I course in the second semester. The first-semester course was developed by researchers and curriculum writers at Johns Hopkins to fill gaps in fundamental skills, develop mathematics reasoning and build students’ confidence in their abilities.

“The question is, Is it better for kids to get into algebra and do algebra, or to give kids the extra time so the teacher can concentrate more on concepts started in middle schools?” said Ruth Curran Neild, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins and one of the study’s principal investigators.

Teachers using both strategies will receive professional development. Mathematics coaches will provide weekly support to those who are teaching the two-course approach; the study will provide teacher guides and hands-on materials for students in Transition to Advanced Mathematics. Johns Hopkins researchers will be collecting data throughout the school year. Findings are expected during the 2010–2011 school year.

“Johns Hopkins has taken on a project, and we’re fortunate enough to be a part of it,” said Marshall Topham, assistant superintendent for secondary education in Utah’s Washington County Schools. “If, in fact, there is a better way to teach math, we can adopt that way.”

The districts selected for the 2009–2010 school year are Chatham County Schools in Pittsboro, N.C.; Lee County Public Schools in Fort Myers, Fla.; Toledo (Ohio) Public Schools; Washington County School District in St. George, Utah; and Fairfax County Public Schools in Falls Church, Va. The four-year study is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.