Promising algebra study gets second act

Promising algebra study gets second act

(Calif.) Researchers working with some 13,000 students in 18 school districts over a three-year period may have solved one of public education’s great conundrums – how to help more at-risk middle school students pass algebra.

The project, one of 49 funded under a 2009 federal grant, employed among other strategies a summer boot camp, teacher training and mentorship as well as project-based curriculum.

The initial findings were disappointing, showing no significant difference in standardized test scores between students that got the intervention and those that didn’t. But team leaders said last week that a deeper look at the data found a number of teachers who didn’t follow the program all the way through – once those classes were sorted out, the results were much more promising.

“Research is usually about the question you ask and the answers you got but often it leads to more questions,” said Sharon Twitty, director of the project, jointly sponsored by the California Education Roundtable Intersegmental Coordinating Committee and the Alliance for Regional Collaboration to Heighten Educational Success or ARCHES.

As a result, the project has evolved into a second act, funded this time with state and local dollars and focused more broadly on improving math skills of students both at middle and secondary levels but using many of the same strategies.

“We listened to the teachers that were inside the project and we’ve made modifications to allow things to work better,” Twitty said. “The big learning we found to be true was that you can get kids to understand higher levels math when you connect math to the student's lives and make it relevant.”

Almost an afterthought in the massive economic recovery legislation passed by Congress in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education got $650 million to establish a brand new program – the Investing in Innovation grant, or i3.

Unique among almost any other education research program undertaken by the federal government were requirements that the initial cohort of i3 grant recipients adhere to rigorous study parameters – those of the randomized control treatment trial.

The idea was not only to find novel approaches to improving student performance but also to have the means to replicate the process, potentially throughout the country.

The ARCHES study received a $5 million i3 grant and put together another $1 million in private money.

The program sought out incoming eighth graders with shaky test scores and invited them to participate in a five-week summer preparation program.

Teachers that volunteer began months before that, learning to apply what they knew from trial and error what works in the classroom and sharing those skills with colleagues.

Classroom instruction was also based around collaboration, where students would gather in teams of two and three to consider an assignment. The teacher’s role was often more that of an instigator than instructor, roaming about the room engaging some, pushing others but leaving a certain burden on the kids to learn on their own.

Getting school districts to embrace the program was difficult as was recruiting teachers that had to commit significant time to learning new teaching methods.

The program also ran into a major hurdle when Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders decided to suspend almost all state testing in the 2013-14 school year as the K-12 system transitioned to the Common Core State Standards. The test scores were required to fulfill the federal study agreement and the dilemma was only overcome when participating LEAs agreed to perform the needed testing on their own.

With the i3 grant closing out, the research team has turned their attention to building a new program that takes the best parts from the initial project with some further refinements.

The California Education Roundtable, the only body that represents the heads of all of the state’s public education sectors – (University of California, CSU, community colleges, private colleges and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction – remains a partner. The Madera County Office of Education has also agreed to be a sponsor.

The new effort has received a $1.8 million grant from the California Department of Education.

“We found out that this model works with mathematics teachers in general,” Twitty said. “Equipping the teachers, supporting them and helping them understand the why behind mathematics – that’s what we’ve found works.”