American Graduate: Math Education

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Just 35% of Arizona students passed the math portion of the new AZMerit test. Although passing the test is no longer a requirement for high school graduation as was the AIMS test, math proficiency still plays an important role in graduation rates. We’ll check into a financial math class and then hear more about the importance of math in education from Cheryl Johnson, the secondary math specialist at Mesa Public Schools, Kimberly Rimbey, the chief learning officer for early adolescent mathematics from the Rodel Foundation of Arizona, and Al Boggess, the director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at Arizona State University.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on Arizona Horizon, we'll hear about the importance of teaching Arizona students new ways to learn math. And we'll learn ways to help with taxes as the end of the year approaches, those stories next on Arizona Horizon. Arizona Horizon is possible by contributions from the friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to Arizona Horizon, I'm Ted Simons. Governor ducey laid a wreath in Pearl Harbor. The attack killed 1200 crew members, the Governor ordered that flags at all state buildings be lowered to half staff in observance of national Pearl Harbor remembrance day. And tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in a challenge to Arizona legislative districts drawn by the state's redistricting commission. A group of about a dozen Republicans argues that the district boundaries were designed to favor Democrats. A claim that the commission denies. And a ruling by the high court is not expected for months, if the court decides what the plaintiffs, the state's 30 districts could be redrawn, shortly before the Knicks -- next election. tonight we look at why two-thirds of Arizona students failed the math portion of the az merit test, the test was conducted for the first time this past spring and education officials expected low scores but the math results should improve with added emphasis on teaching real world knowledge and skills. As evident in a financial math class at a Tempe high school. Producer Shana Fischer and photography Miguel Valverde have the story.

Robin Palmer: We're going to do some math today, to see which one will grow the best.

Video: Robyn Palmer's financial math class is more than just figures and formulas.

Robin Palmer: Will that grow? No. When will it grow? If I put money in.

Video: The students in her class are gaining real world knowledge.

Robin Palmer: The idea was we take financial topics that they will need to use in their lives, and create a class that goes around that, so when they graduate from this class, they should know how to buy a car or get an apartment. Buy stock, make investments if they want to, organize a budget for themselves. Lots of different things that all of us experience in our lives.

Video: Four years ago, Arizona's department of education changed state requirements to include four years of math in order to graduate high school. McClintock high school in Tempe where Palmer teaches, decided to offer the financial math class as an option.

Seth Kennedy: The math class pertains to like actual life, you know, this is something that we will be using from day-to-day, and it's nice to learn, you know, besides letters and stuff for like regular math.

Video: Today's lesson is about saving and investing money.

Robin Palmer: What I tried to do with today's lesson is show that stocks are still one option for them. And if they have a bit of money, they can take it and invest that in the stock market and potentially make money, but also, the stock market is very risky, so I like them to understand strategies that they can make with a bit of money.

Video: Using Mason jars and candy, Palmer is able to explain the concepts of simple and compound interest, and engage the students.

Seth Kennedy: It's a financial matter because I know that, you know, learning to do better with your money, is something that everybody needs to know. Not just, you know, the average guy in school, but all of us are eventually going to have to use this math to deal with our day-to-day life.

Video: For Gabriela Palacios, this class goes beyond helping her gpa.

Gabriela Palacios: I am definitely more prepared to go into the workforce because we filled out papers like -- we fill out checkbooks, how to fill out checks, forms, like w-9s and stuff like that. And like work forms that I have never really filled out before.

Video: Palmer says that it's not just her students who could benefit from this class. A state department of economics analysis of jobs figures shows 68% of jobs in Arizona, only require a high school diploma, but the majority of those jobs are entry level and low paying, and calmer says if we want to increase the number of higher paying jobs in the state, having students who understand finance is attractive to companies.

Robin Palmer: I think that as we increase these skill levels of the high school students, the employers are going to benefit because all of a sudden they have employees who are better at what they do.

Video: Palmer says another benefit to her class, her students taking home the lessons they learned.

Robin Palmer: So I love when the parents let me know that I made a difference in their lives of their children. Because I object that it's going to be better for them in the long run. So, not only do I get to see the lights come on in the classroom but I get to see families learn and benefit from just learning.

Ted Simons: The class is just for seniors but the principal would like to offer to all grades. Here now to talk about the importance of math in education is Cheryl Johnson, secondary math specialist at Mesa public schools, and Kimberly Rimbey, the chief learning officer from the Rodel foundation of Arizona, and Al Boggess, the director of ASU's school of mathematical and statistical sciences. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us. This business of 35% passing the math test, the az merit test, did that surprise you?

Cheryl Johnson: No, I think that that's what we expected. We raised the bar with the mathematical standards, and this was our first year of full implementation, with an assessment that measured that success. And in the year before, while we fully implemented the new standards, we had the ames test, so it was measuring the former standards.

Ted Simons: And the ames test was measuring things that you don't really -- I would not say aren't all that important, but you are looking at the az merit test, looking at this real world kind of stuff. A little different.

Cheryl Johnson: It was different.

Ted Simons: How different was this? And again, are you surprised that a third couldn't quite get it the first time through?

Kimberly Rimbey: Like her, I was not surprised because we did raise that bar, and raising that bar is really important. We want Arizona's children to be nationally and internationally competitive. So, raising that bar -- it will take us a bit of time to catch up, but not a lot.

Ted Simons: How is the test more reflective of the real world?

Kimberly Rimbey: One thing that we're focusing on now is the how, the why, and the when. When it comes to math. And this test is really looking at not only how do I do math, but, for a long time we have focused on how do I do long division? How do I convert from a fraction to a decimal to a percent? But, we want to look at more than just a how but at the why. Why did it work that way and can I explain why it works that way? In, and the when, when am I going to use this and when is this going to be applicable in real life?

Ted Simons: When they get to the University, level, what are you seeing from the high schools? Is it, they are not quite sure of the why?

Al Boggess: So, they need both the procedural knowledge, but also, deeper concept United Airline knowledge, and relating it to the real world, is of critical importance. For example, we have four different flavors of calculus that we teach, one for business and one for engineering, and one for life sciences and one for the hard sciences. So, relating it to the real world is absolutely critical.

Ted Simons: Is the idea of the usual path. We'll start with you, geometry, through calculus and high school? You get to move on, is that -- is that an old fashioned thing? Is it necessary for all high school students to understands calculus?

Al Boggess: Not necessarily. You have to understand a good algebra and precalculus background, for the students that don't make it through calculus, we teach it in college. So that -- it's not essential that you have calculus before. It's very essential that you have the prerequisites like the precalculus and algebras and trigonometry skills.

Ted Simons: Do you get a ramp then, and in terms of mathematics, why is it so difficult for kids? What's going on out there?

Cheryl Johnson: Well, I think that sometimes, students have had a bad experience, it's kind of socially acceptable to say, I'm not good at mathematics. My parents are not good at it. Somewhere in their academic career, they hit a block where they felt internally, innately, that they did not know mathematics, and the research shows that that's not true. That anyone can learn mathematics.

Ted Simons: Why are they hitting that block and why can't they get past that block?

Cheryl Johnson: Well, I think that we're doing work with teachers, and engaging students in that productive struggle, and allowing them to approach problems in a different way. To have different Avenues to get to a solution. And there is not only one way to do mathematics. It's not algorithmic so allowing that discussion and for students to teach teachers on what their thinking is, so that teachers can unravel that, if there is a misconception, they can make a correction.

Ted Simons: I think when I was a kid, I was a sports nut, and I could do batting averages, and earned run averages and all these things, and very young. I didn't go too much past that, unfortunately or fortunately, but is that what we're talking about in terms of just finding something that a kid is interested in? Or makes sense to that student? And going from there?

Kimberly Rimbey: Absolutely. We want to make sure that the kids can make sense of the mathematics and make sure that the teachers can help kids have access to that. You know, a lot of our teachers grew up in a system, where they learned how to do procedures but they did not know how to make everything relevant for themselves, and so, we really have to spend a lot of time working with our teachers, we have excellent teachers in Arizona who want to make a difference but the way that they need to teach math to prepare them for life, as well as for the tests, really requires a new approach. Helping our teachers learn how to make math accessible and interesting, through things like batting averages, and money, financial literacy, was a great example as something that's very relevant to our children, and even at five.

Ted Simons: Is there, there a way, even at the University level but what you are seeing, is there -- why is it so hard for some of these and is it, basically sarc cultural norm? To be able to say I can't do it and no one will think worse of you?

Al Boggess: It's not acceptable any more. And we certainly take the attitude, at college, is that if you try hard enough and work at it, some people have to work harder. But everybody can do it. And your approach of the conceptual mathematics, and the explaining mathematics from multiple points of view, is also critical. Students don't learn math in the same ways. Some are visual, and some of them are algorithmic and algebraic, so the key is for the teacher to understand that student's learning style and try to pick the approach that is appropriate for them.

Ted Simons: And would an appropriate approach for some, to take a more artistic look at that, to see the flowing movement of numbers and algebraic equations and say, this is beautiful, as opposed to this is hard, get it right or we'll do it again.

Al Boggess: Yes, and you know, math is everywhere. It's in every walk of life. And so finding the niche of how to explain math, in the area that makes sense, and meaningful to the students is a key.

Ted Simons: I have read in doing research on this, that math requirements can, can fuel drop-out rates because it's like the first thing that a kid says, I can't do this, and then it tumbles from there. It's important to not have those blocks as you mentioned because too many blocks, the kid doesn't graduate, correct?

Cheryl Johnson: Correct.We have supports for students, we have courses that they can take in conjunction with the math courses, that support the class they are taking concurrently or to fill the gaps that the students may come in with. We have social promotion, so a student can enter high school, and have not been successful at mathematics their entire career.

Ted Simons: Is there a way for these students, who do have trouble with math, just to keep them from giving up not only on math, but on other aspects of education?

Cheryl Johnson: Yes, we have -- the state delineates that we need to -- students need to take algebra, geometry and algebra II, but we offer other courses like the financial literacy, algebra applications, which is like a bridge to move students into that algebra II. But it's the interest, the engaging the students and the mathematics that keeps them -- when they feel success, when they have that success, they believe they can do it because they can.

Ted Simons: Yes. And are we talking math here? Are we talking quantitative reasoning? Are we talking a hybrid of -- what are we talking about?

Kimberly Rimbey: We're talking about all of the above. We want our kids to really learn how to think. You know, one of my favorite teachers said that we don't teach poetry because we think that every child will be a poet. We teach it because we want them to have a love 6 of language and for them to communicate. We don't teach it because we think everyone will be a mathematician, although some will. But, we do want to make sure that every child has access to the tool kit we call mathematics because we want them to think critically and that's what we want our kids to do, regardless of what career they choose or path they go down.

Ted Simons: So we're talking making math a little easier, not easier but easier, more approachable, more accessible, is that a good idea inside modern world?

Al Boggess: Absolutely, and technology can help. Technology can help visualize concepts. We have classes that run discussion boards, so that the students can get their questions answered after hours. It's not the old traditional go to the classroom, and two or three times a week, go to a professor's office hours. It's 24-7.

Ted Simons: And in many respects it's a new world as far as math and math education. Good to have you here and thanks for joining us.

Ted Simons: Thanks so much.

Cheryl Johnson: Secondary Math Specialist at Mesa Public Schools, Kimberly Rimbey: Chief Learning Officer for Early Adolescent Mathematics from the Rodel Foundation of Arizona, Al Boggess: Director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at Arizona State University

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