instructional runway

Teachers model off their real-world approaches to teaching math

Math teachers Amy Hogan, of Brooklyn Technical High School, and Ellie Terry, of the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, present an election modeling project their students worked on last fall.

How much voting power does a New Yorker really wield? How can statistics presented by the media manipulate readers? How do you raise sweatshop wages without sacrificing profit?

These are a few of the questions that math teachers in New York City are asking their students as they try to bring complex and abstract concepts to life. To answer them, students must supplement the equations and formulas found in textbooks by grappling with real-world applications.

The lessons cover a mathematical practice known as modeling that has been around for decades but is now getting a closer look in schools around the city as teachers try to align their math lessons to Common Core standards that require real-world applicability.

Using modeling to present lessons is one of two instructional focuses that the Department of Education has laid out this year for math teachers.

“It’s the practice of solving real-world problems,” said Brooklyn Technical High School’s Patrick Honner, a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School who in December won a $10,000 award for an innovative math lesson he developed.

In the prize-winning lesson, Honner had students design hats out of paper materials. At the beginning of the unit, Honner’s students measured the dimensions of one half of a sphere, then had to create hats that contained the exact same area. At the end of class, the students presented their hats in a fashion show.

Honner was one of several teachers who showed off their modeling lessons to colleagues late last year in 10-minute TED talk–style presentations at the headquarters of Math for America, an organization that offers fellowships to math teachers. The group is preparing to open the fellowships up to science teachers as well and has even caught the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to replicate its stipend model to reward top-performing teachers.

While the city is encouraging math teachers to tackle modeling, in some ways the practice is at odds with the way that the city and state assess students. In a presentation called “g=4, and Other Lies the Test Told Me,” Honner showed slides of test questions that showed what he said were flawed approaches to solving math problems.

Elisabeth Jaffe of Baruch College Campus High School turned to an unusual source for a two-and-a-half-week algebra unit: newspapers.

“I felt like our students are not aware enough of current events,” said Jaffe, one of 97 teachers from around the country to win the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2012. “You’ll ask them, ‘Who’s the vice president?’ and they won’t know, which is sad and depressing.”

Jaffe said she asked herself, “How can I relate it back to math in a really clear way?”

Jaffe created a website and assigned her students to read articles in the New York Times, focusing on the economics stories that packed many numbers into the stories. Then they had to compare them with the raw data to determine if the stories fairly represented the statistics. On the website, students wrote their critiques.

In another presentation, Amy Hogan, from Brooklyn Tech, and Ellie Terry, from High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, shared a unit they had recently wrapped up in time for the 2012 presidential election. The students studied the country’s electoral college and examined and mapped on a graph how many votes each state received compared with its total population. They found that California, Texas, and New York had many electoral votes but had less power per voter compared to the voters who contribute to Wyoming’s four electoral votes.

“There was a lot of Nate Silver adoration,” said Hogan, referring to the statistician whose model accurately predicted the election results.

While many of the teachers taught in selective high schools, Mohammed Aminyar, a teacher at East Side Community High School, which has more students eligible free and reduced lunch, said modeling worked in his classroom as well. He said his students responded to data that addressed social issues and inequities. His class has looked at the housing market in post-Katrina New Orleans, Iraq War casualties, and prices of MTA subway cards.

One project assigned students to look at the earning sheets of a fictitious shoe company that used sweatshop labor in South America and asked them to come up with a way to raise the workers’ wages without giving up too much profit.

“When it comes to justice, the students are really kind of, like, up in arms about what’s fair and what’s not fair,” said Aminyar.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.