Maryland teenager Tiffanee Snow has been studying algebra since she began attending Forestville High School last fall. At first, she couldn’t stand algebra. Now, she’s making As. Snow credits the innovative teaching style of her math teacher for her success. She especially likes the team approach to classwork.
“Working together helps us get through the problems better than when it’s just one person doing it all by himself,” Snow says. She hasn’t decided what she wants to do when she finishes school, but Snow is considering careers in either cosmetology, photography, or teaching preschool. And although she is excelling in math these days, Snow says she still doesn’t see how algebra is used in the outside world.
While Forestville junior Cedric Lyles cannot offer Snow examples from the outside world, he can assure her that without mastering algebra it will be impossible for her to move on to higher forms of math.
“You can’t do geometry or calculus without algebra,” says Lyles, who views advanced math courses as essential to his future plans. Lyles is a musician who has set his sites on attending the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts. Ultimately, he hopes to earn a graduate degree in business so that he can fulfill his dream of starting a music production company.
Lyles and Snow are two of the 906 students who attend Forestville High–one of twenty comprehensive high schools in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The county was the second school system in the nation to sign up with the College Board’s Equity 2000 program.
The difference between Forestville and most other schools around the country is that everyone here–whether he or she aspires to become a cosmetologist, a surgeon or an entrepreneur–is expected to complete algebra and geometry by the end of the tenth grade. Subjects such as consumer math and general math no longer exist at Forestville–or anywhere else in the county’s school system.
Prince George’s County is home to the largest school district in Maryland–and the eighteenth largest in the nation. Roughly 74 percent of the student population is African American. The system’s goal is to achieve 100 percent enrollment of its high school students in algebra I and geometry by the year 2000.
When the district first began its journey with Equity 2000 in 1990, Dr. Jerome Clark, Prince George’s County Superintendent of Schools, admits no one anticipated just how comprehensive the reform effort would become. The program started with a $1.2 million grant from Equity 2000 and a $45,000 investment on the part of the county. Initially, only the high schools were involved. However, district officials soon realized that if the program was to succeed, they needed to prepare students long before their admission to high school. “Initially, the ownership wasn’t there at the middle school and elementary school level,” says Clark. “They saw it as a high school initiative and didn’t think there was anything that they had to change.”
At the time, according to Clark, there were no testing mechanisms in place at the middle school level that would provide an incentive for teachers at the lower grades to enhance their programs. Since then, the county has undergone a painstaking process of reforming its entire K-12 system– from curriculum materials, student evaluation methods and educational technology, to the training of teachers, administrators and guidance counselors. This year, the district is spending $1.4 million on Equity 2000–with only a modest grant coming from the College Board.
Supporting the Learning Process “Before [Equity 2000], many of the teachers were lecturers,” says Janice Briscoe, Forestville’s dean of academic and student affairs. “Now the students are discovering math for themselves. They discuss it more. There is more of an interdisciplinary focus on math here, and I think the students see the value of learning mathematics.”
An example of this can be found in a classroom located in the school’s math and science wing. One of the walls in Tom Scercy’s classroom is adorned with posters: Math in Africa, Math in India, Math in Mexico, and Math in a variety of other locales. The posters depict how math is used by people in different cultures around the world. From the ceiling dangle brightly colored, three-dimensional wooden mobiles. Scercy is busy preparing his students for the types of problems they can expect to encounter on an upcoming exam. All eyes of the nine students in his Monday morning geometry class are fixed on the racing strokes of his blue pen across an illuminated overhead projector screen.
“How do you calculate the area of a parallelogram?” Scercy asks the students. There is no immediate response. Some of the students flip through their textbooks, others hold their head in one hand and scribble into their notebooks with the other. “Come on, you guys know this,” Scercy says, acknowledging that it has been a while since he confronted them with this type of problem.
A few students guess incorrectly until Scercy offers a concrete example: “Okay, what if you I asked you to lay carpet in this classroom. . . ” Before he can finish his question, several students chirp out the answer.
The Equity 2000 program involves more than modifying curriculum, measuring student performance and retraining teachers. It includes retraining guidance counselors and developing support programs as well. Support programs at Forestville include after-school programs, a homework hotline, special tutoring labs, parent workshops, and student field trips to colleges and universities, among other offerings.
“These systems are in place to help the students succeed,” Briscoe explains. With Equity 2000 funds, Briscoe has been able to create eight non-teaching staff positions she would not have had otherwise. This year, she also put the school on an alternate schedule of four-period days, giving teachers eighty-five minutes of instruction time per period instead of the traditional forty-seven minutes.
“One of our biggest challenges is making sure everyone in the community–parents, the business community and community leaders–understand this program,” says Forestville math coordinator Michelle Williams. “Many of our parents don’t understand what we’re trying to do. They see a child come home with a modeling project and they say, `No, I want to see him have a book and bring it to class.”‘
Parent outreach is a significant part of the Equity 2000 program. Forestville offers workshops for parents throughout the school year to help them understand the program and to explain the role they are expected to play toward ensuring their child’s success. Thus far, participation is not what Williams and Briscoe would like, so they continue to search for ways to involve more parents. “As a single mom, I know how hard it is for parents,” concedes Williams. Forestville also has a Weld site and a voicemail system especially designed to broaden its accessibility to parents.
Baby Algebra Steps One of the more challenging aspects of the Prince George’s County experience with Equity 2000 has been finding appropriate and effective ways to include elementary and middle schools in the program.
Equity 2000 didn’t come to Barnaby Manor Elementary School until 1994. The school has a student enrollment of 702, and a faculty of forty. The student population is 95 percent African American, and Black teachers constitute approximately 50 percent of the staff.
Like most elementary students, graduates of Barnaby are expected to perform basic mathematic skills such as addition, subtraction and multiplication, as well as work with fractions and percentages. They are expected to be able to read maps and schedules, and perform tasks such as food preparation with the help of a recipe. Barnaby students are also exposed to what some people describe as “baby algebra.”
Erlena C. Linthicum has been teaching at Barnaby since 1968. She attended an Equity 2000 teachers institute during the summer of 1995. Some of the concepts Linthicum was exposed to at the institute were not new to her. However the program did influence the way she taught her sixth-grade students the following year. “I had been using manipulatives even before the institute, but I hadn’t included a lot of the subject matter,” says Linthicum, who believes the institute had a beneficial impact on her students because all of them wound up taking algebra once they got to middle school.
With Equity 2000 funds, teachers at all Prince George’s County schools are now eligible to attend these summer institutes where they learn how to teach basic algebraic and geometric concepts. The institutes train teachers to use manipulative tools to convey advanced mathematical concepts. It also gives teachers at all levels of the school system an opportunity to discuss how they can cooperate to make the program work from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. So far, only a few of Barnaby teachers have attended the summer institutes. Those who have are encouraged to share what they learned with the rest of the faculty.
According to Linda Hawkins, who teaches at Barnaby and is the school’s former math coordinator, while there is no algebra course for students at the elementary level, even though the teachers do try to expose students to advanced mathematical concepts. “For example, we teach them to how to solve problems using numbers in sentences in which one of the numbers is left out,” explains Hawkins. “The missing variable would be represented by a letter, such as A, B or N. Eventually, the children become comfortable with this way of thinking.”
Despite the baby algebra steps students take at the elementary level, few students graduate advanced enough to begin algebra in middle school. The mandate for middle schools in Prince George’s County is to get students “algebra ready” so that they are prepared to enroll in algebra I during their freshman year of high school.
The Middle School Role
Kettering Middle School is situated in Upper Marlboro, one of the more affluent sections of Prince George’s County. It has a student population of more than 1200 students, roughly 80 percent of whom are African American.
Dave Sheppard is the school’s math department chair. He teaches algebra and is the faculty’s Equity 2000 point person. Sheppard has been at Kettering since he began teaching five years ago. According to him, the task of getting all students ready for algebra by the time they graduate is a challenge.
“When I went into teaching, I had more of a save-the-world attitude than I do now,” says Sheppard. “Actually, I guess I still have it, it has just changed. I wanted to work with kids who weren’t being successful…. I try to give them some of the excitement that [math] always created for me when I was in school. But I quickly learned that my strength is not in helping students who are on the wayward path.
“When I get students who really want to learn, they really like me because class is fun. But when I have students who really have no interest in being there I can stand on my head and run around, but I feel like I don’t do any better with them than anyone else does.”
At Kettering slightly more than 100 students already are enrolled in algebra this year and another sixty will be added by the second semester. These students represent approximately 25 percent of the school’s eighth-grade population says Sheppard.
Sheppard agrees with the principle behind Equity 2000 which is that all children can learn. He also believes the program has tremendous potential. But he worries that some students may be done a disservice as school districts like Prince George’s County become more aggressive in striving to achieve the goal of 100 percent enrollment in algebra and geometry by tenth grade. “For principals their little badge [of achievement] is demonstrated by how many algebra students they have But as teachers we don’t want to put kids in algebra just because the school wants a bigger number. We only want to put the kids in who are going to be successful and for whom this is appropriate.”
Pressure to advance students too quickly also comes from parents who believe there is a measure of prestige attached to having a child who is enrolled in algebra. “We get parents who come up and try to push us to get their kids in algebra,” Sheppard says. “If they push long enough and hard enough, no matter how much we disagree, we go ahead and abide by their wishes. But we go on the record saying we didn’t think your child was ready.”
Shirley Robinson is Kettering’s Equity 2000 guidance counselor. She says one of the more exciting programs she is able to offer now, thanks to Equity 2000 funds, is the college campus tour program. Aside from nearby institutions like Maryland’s Bowie state, she has taken dozens of students as far as Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Georgia and Hampton University in Virginia. “Many children have no idea what goes on in college,” Robinson says. “During these trips, they get to tour the campus [with a student guide], meet with admissions officers…. It gives them a better idea on what college is like.”
One of Robinson’s frustrations, however, is that some institutions of higher education aren’t interested in meeting with her students. “Higher education has become such a business that many schools don’t see the value in meeting with middle school students. They only want to work with students who are on their way to college within a couple of years,” said Robinson, who believes that the desire to attend college should be planted in students long before they are juniors in high school. Planting that seed is what her school aims to do with its Equity 2000 program. “In higher-level math, children use a higher order of thinking skills which are useful across the board, but they are essential for getting into to college,” Robinson says.
Teachers and administrators in Prince George’s County didn’t all welcome Equity 2000 with open arms when the program was first instituted. John Hagan, who is now Equity 2000 supervisor for the county’s schools, was a principal when the program first began here. He remembers how he and his staff viewed the program as just another fad.
“Over a period of time, though, as we the principals, counselors, and teachers were trained in the goals and concepts of Equity 2000 — and when we saw that other kids could take algebra and geometry, and, yes, they could pass it — attitudes really changed.” Officials admit the program still has a long way to go. The good news is that the district has experienced phenomenal growth in the number of students now enrolled in advanced math courses.
In 1990, only 53 percent of the district’s ninth-graders were enrolled in algebra I. By the end of the 1994-95 academic year, the district had reached 50 percent enrollment. Comparable growth also occurred in geometry, which leapt from a 44 percent enrollment in 1990 to 77 percent in 1995. The passing rates among students taking these courses have remained virtually unchanged — slaying at 80 percent for algebra and 87 percent for geometry. However considering how dramatically the aggregate number of students now taking these courses has grown, this sustained passing rate is impressive.
The bad news is that the district’s SAT performance is less impressive, with the mean score hovering just below 900. “Our SAT scores had reflected a downward spiral for the last ten years, but this year was significant in that for African American students there was no decline,” Clark says.
White students in the district showed a six-point increase, and Asian and Latino students showed a slight decline. “Our composite scores showed an insignificant decline, but because our largest cohort of students is African American, we think we’ve turned a corner. We’re encouraging students to take the SAT now, where before they weren’t encouraged,” explains Clark. Today, the Preliminary Scholastic Achievement Test (PSAT) is suggested for eighth-grade students and every ninth grader in Prince George’s is encouraged to take the PSAT. All students are encouraged to take the SAT by the tenth grade.
“One of the things you have to understand when you institute a program like this is that it has a rippling effect,” Clark says. “It wasn’t just a matter of changing the mindset of high school teachers, it was changing the mindset of kindergarten teachers because the expectations were raised all the way through the organization.” Because systematizing such comprehensive reform takes time, Clark believes it may be a while before the results emerge on academic performance instruments such as the SAT.
Role of Higher Education
John Hagan, Equity 2000 supervisor for Prince George’s, adds that there is a role for higher education in this equation as well. He and others in the county say that colleges and universities are I not adequately preparing educators to teach math the way it is being taught in today’s high schools.
“The higher education component is the real loose link in this chain,” says Hagan, who notes that math skills are especially deficient among new teachers who teach at the middle school and elementary levels. Prince George’s draws approximately 30 percent of its teaching staff from universities within the state of Maryland. “One of the problems we have is we don’t have a school full of experienced math teachers,” Sheppard says. “All we get is all these new young people — and many of them are not certified. Many have not been trained to even he math teachers, let alone algebra teachers.”
With Equity 2000 funds, Prince George’s now offers numerous professional development workshops for its teachers. But since these opportunities are voluntary, only the most motivated of teachers has taken advantage of them. “Equity 2000 provides enough professional development so that a teacher can develop into a good teacher,” Sheppard says. “But that doesn’t mean that when you walk in the first day, there is some workshop that gives you all the magic. I think it’s two or three years of tough work, and not every teacher who comes in here is up to do the work.
“In high school, those freshman algebra classes tend to go to brand new teachers who weren’t trained in Equity 2000, who weren’t trained in teaching algebra, who don’t know a graphing calculator from a television set — and they’re not up for the job,” Sheppard says. One of the challenges for higher education, according to Clark, is to find ways to entice more math majors into teaching careers. Otherwise, school systems like Prince George’s will continue to have to retrain teachers — and in the process, students will suffer.
Number of students taking algebra in Prince George’s County, Maryland
Passing with Passing with
"B" or better less than "B" Not passing
1991-92 32% 49% 19%
1994-95 31% 49% 20%
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com