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Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2004

Challenging math and "fun" not mutually exclusive

IU faculty and Indiana teachers focus on mathematics

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- For many people, the idea that challenging and comprehensive mathematics instruction also can be fun is, well, a bit of a stretch.

Students, teachers and administrators in nine urban Indiana school districts are learning that mathematics can be challenging and fun -- for the students and the teachers, for the academic "eagles" as well as struggling students. This new-found enjoyment appears to be translating into better standardized test scores.

"My students thoroughly enjoy math," said Linda Afdahl of the new mathematics curriculum she is piloting in her Vigo County School Corp. second-grade classroom. "With fun-filled math games to learn and reinforce basic facts, manipulatives to explore and develop concepts, and alternative algorithms to match the learning preferences of all ability levels, children feel hugely successful at math. I no longer deal with students who just don't think they will get it. They know and trust that their mathematical experiences will be positive. This is good news for all teachers."

The students' work, which educators say often demonstrates a deeper and advanced understanding of mathematics, shows that these students have good reasons for their change of heart.

Afdahl is one of hundreds of Indiana teachers who are working with school administrators and Indiana University Bloomington faculty to rework how mathematics is taught in the state's elementary and high schools. The educators are in their second year of a multifaceted math education improvement initiative funded by a $6.2 million National Science Foundation grant. Recent ISTEP-Plus scores and classroom indicators show that the 50-month initiative has gotten off to a remarkable start.

A breakdown of the latest ISTEP scores for the individual school districts participating in the initiative shows that in most cases, students exposed to Everyday Mathematics, the curriculum used as part of the initiative, passed the state's math standardized test last fall in higher percentages than their peers. One district saw a difference of 17 and 22 percentage points in the third-grade and sixth-grade testing results. Educators looked at test results for these two grades because they follow the grades that piloted the curriculum during the previous school year. Five of the other districts saw differences of 10 to 14 percentage points. Standardized test scores, particularly improved standardized test scores, have taken on greater importance since the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind program, which lets states use their standardized tests to gauge whether they are meeting the federal goals.

Dale Nowlin, chairman of the math department at Columbus North High School, said the ISTEP scores are promising. He described as "more phenomenal" the students' reaction to the new curriculum and approach to math instruction. Nowlin also serves as the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.'s district coordinator for the math initiative. In this role, he visits classrooms and talks to students about their lessons.

In every case, Nowlin said, he watched students who were "very engaged in 'doing' math," rather than the older classroom model where students listen to teachers go over their lessons and assignments. In a fifth-grade classroom, he watched students play a game that involved putting fractions with different denominators in increasing order of magnitude without a calculator. In a third-grade classroom, he listened to a teacher and students discuss geometry concepts using advanced terminology, including concepts that stump some seventh graders.

Nowlin and others say the activity-based curriculum appeals to different learning styles as well as abilities. Students are getting a better understanding of mathematics, they say, and are learning concepts earlier than typically taught. In some cases, the lessons include not only math standards but science standards as well. Nowlin said the most common answer he receives when asking students about their math lessons is that the lessons are "more interesting. It's fun."

"A couple of them said it was easy, which surprised me because if you look at it, it's not easy," Nowlin said. "I think they are so engaged in the activities, they don't realize how much mathematics they are learning."

The initiative is coordinated by the IUB Mathematics Department and IU Center for Mathematics Education. It also involves the IUB School of Education and the Indiana Mathematics Initiative, a consortium of Indiana schools that formed in 1996 during a similar NSF-funded grant with which IUB faculty and IMI targeted middle school mathematics instruction. Daniel Maki, a professor in the IUB Mathematics Department, is the grant's principal investigator and also the director of the IU Center for Mathematics Education. Maki said he is pleased with the progress. Teachers are enthusiastic about what they're learning, he said, and this translates into more challenging and interesting lessons for students.

The educators are phasing in the new curriculum, starting with second and fifth grades during the last school year, third and fourth grades this school year, and prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade in the next school year.

Like the elementary school component, the high school component builds on the previous NSF grant. In fact, the new partnership continues to work with lead teachers in IMI middle schools with the goal of increasing the vertical articulation of mathematics education within each IMI district.

The high school component is directed by Paul Kehle, an IUB visiting faculty member in the School of Education. At the heart of the secondary component is a two-week residential institute held on the Bloomington campus. The institute prepares teachers to incorporate mathematical modeling in their math classes. Mathematical modeling is, in short, solving realistic problems by first creating mathematical representations for them, and then recasting the everyday world problems as mathematical problems. Educators want students to see how math is used in many areas, such as business, science and government.

The initiative includes the following components:

-- Develop "cadres" in each district of teachers like Afdahl who have a good understanding of the mathematics and teaching methods associated with Everyday Mathematics and can serve as mentors to other teachers. Around 400 teachers already are participating in the initiative. Officials say most of the funding goes toward teacher support and professional development, which is key to the continued success of the initiative.

-- Help the participating districts develop a more informed, data-driven process to adopt curricular materials. This component is important because school districts across the state are adopting mathematics instructional materials and textbooks this year as part of a six-year textbook adoption rotation. Already this spring several of the participating school districts have adopted the Everyday Mathematics curriculum.

-- Keep school administrators abreast of national and state standards and how these translate into classroom lessons so the administrators can be supportive of teachers' efforts.

-- Work with the IUB Mathematics Department and students in the IUB School of Education so the prospective teachers are prepared to teach mathematics in the manner promoted by the initiative. This component is coordinated by Maynard Thompson, a professor in the Mathematics Department.

The following districts are participating in the initiative:

-- Anderson Community Schools, district coordinator Lynn Black, 765-641-2031

-- Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., district coordinator Dale Nowlin, 812-376-4206

-- Elkhart Community Schools, district coordinator David Benak, 574-262-5935

-- Fort Wayne Community Schools, district coordinator Laura Daley, 260-425-7255

-- Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township, district coordinator Wes Sanders, 317-856-5265

-- Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, district coordinator Carolyn Bronson, 317-387-2575

-- School City of East Chicago, district coordinator Maria Dalhoumi, 219-391-4100 ext.339

-- School City of Hammond, district coordinator Debi Maddox, 219-933-2400

-- Vigo County School Corp., district coordinator Rex Ireland, 812-462-4203

The IUB faculty is involved with several other grants aimed at improving mathematics instruction in the schools. These grants include a $1.3 million NSF grant involving education faculty and a national standardized test for math, a $429,553 grant from Lucent Technologies that involves a collaborative project with all middle and high school teachers in Monroe County, and a $643,130 grant from Technical Education Research Centers to develop curricular materials for teaching elementary mathematics.