real-world math

Forget frustrating equations. This Indiana high school teaches algebra you’ll actually use.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Two Noblesville High School students work through a project related to texting and driving for their financial Algebra 2 class.

As soon as Caitlin Scull started her stopwatch, her classmate began texting.

“You want it to be real,” their teacher, Eric Gurule, told Scull and her partner. The student was texting with two hands — which few people do while driving.

The girl switched to just her right hand, holding her phone low near her waist as she pantomimed driving a car. “I’ll see you soon,” she texted her friend.

The watch stopped. 6.82 seconds.

Turns out, a short text sent at 55 mph gets you 393 feet down the road — a little longer than the length of a football field.

The calculations, based on numbers like braking and stopping time, were preceded by a talk in the Noblesville High School classroom from a local 24-year veteran police officer. He detailed to the class of about 20 students the risks of texting and driving, recounting nights he showed up at parents’ front doors to share the tragic news that their children had been killed.

A local police officer answers questions during the financial Algebra 2 class at Noblesville High School.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A local police officer answers questions during the financial Algebra 2 class at Noblesville High School.

It didn’t look like an Algebra 2 class. But that’s kind of the point.

Gurule teaches what his school calls “financial Algebra 2,” a direct substitute for the typical college-preparatory version that has vexed educators and students ever since Indiana made it part of its graduation requirements about a decade ago. The class meets the state’s Algebra 2 standards and is a good option for some students with learning challenges, those learning English, or those with no need or aptitude for higher-level math. Because it is more focused on real-world problem-solving, instead of the procedural steps of math computation, it can be easier for students to tackle the assignments and remember what to do.

Read: With new learning strategies, kids tackle higher-level math

Algebra 2 was added to the Core 40 diploma to prepare students for college in 2007. But now, more than 10 years later, educators and policymakers are grappling with how to balance challenging coursework that prepares kids for college with the reality that not every student will attend.

Indeed, across the nation, states have stepped up math requirements to include Algebra 2. But in several cases, they quickly walked those decisions back when they became stumbling blocks for students who aren’t able or don’t want to pursue advanced math. As Indiana and many other states direct more money and planning toward workforce readiness, it’s clear there’s a need for an alternative.

But Indiana officials have been loathe to change the Algebra 2 requirement — until now. Proposals in the Indiana General Assembly would allow the State Board of Education to rethink requiring students to complete the advanced course and consider alternatives. The state is already deep into the process of changing graduation requirements, including advancing proposals for a single state diploma and introducing a new “graduation pathways” system.

Read: 6 things you should know about Indiana’s new graduation rules

Noblesville presents one relevant case study. While many schools in the state offer math electives and alternative courses for students with special needs, there doesn’t seem to be many — if any — direct substitutes like what Noblesville High School has developed: a class that meets the state’s Algebra 2 standards but with a real-world rather than theoretical focus. As far as Gurule knows, his class is the only one.

“I couldn’t find a single class in Hamilton County that taught anything like this,” he said. “That was shocking to me, that there was not another sort of financial class or algebra class where they were incorporating algebra content with financial stuff.”

Eric Gurule, Noblesville High School's financial Algebra 2 teacher, explains directions to his class.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Eric Gurule, Noblesville High School’s financial Algebra 2 teacher, explains directions to his class.

Chalkbeat reached out to Marion County districts, and of the ones that responded, none had a class like Gurule’s or a substitute for typical Algebra 2. But several superintendents were intrigued by the idea.

“As a former Business Math teacher, I think this is critical for our kids to understand the real world,” Paul Kaiser, superintendent of Beech Grove Schools, said in an email.

The class was born about three years ago when another Noblesville teacher, Andy Wilkins, noticed how much of a hurdle Algebra 2 had been for his students. He went to a conference and heard a session on an alternative finance-focused class and brought the idea back to his colleagues. He and a few coworkers got together to create the course and started with one class period. Last year, Gurule took it over. Now, Noblesville High School offers six class periods of financial Algebra 2 to about 170 students — about one-quarter of the students who’d be expected to Algebra 2.

“We sort of want the class to mimic life,” Gurule said. “A lot of our kids that were taking this class were kids that were going right from high school into the workforce or trade schools … we wanted them to have these sort of skills right when they got out into the real world.”

In the class, Gurule said students learn algebra by way of lessons on buying a home, paying student loans and other bills, and buying a car. They learn about making budgets, doing taxes, using credit cards, and planning for retirement. Gurule teaches them how the stock market works and how that factors into things like retirement accounts and savings.

Applying principles of Algebra 2 to such things isn’t difficult — loans accrue interest through exponential growth functions, and piecewise functions can be used to predict how much data you might use on your phone bill.

“They are not seeing just numbers,” said math department chair Laura Costa. “It all has context to it.”

And students aren’t missing much by way of curriculum. The class doesn’t cover some lessons on circles, hyperbolas and ellipses, but those topics are more relevant to precalculus, Gurule said. He focuses less on solving logarithmic functions and analyzing certain graphs, but his students still learn enough about those topics to meet state standards.

Students in Gurule's class use Algebra 2 equations and principles to solve real-world problems, such as how far a car would go in the time it takes to send a text message.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Gurule’s class use Algebra 2 equations and principles to solve real-world problems, such as how far a car would go in the time it takes to send a text message.

Gurule said he certainly has students who go on to college, but others go on to become veterinary technicians, hair stylists and welders. They find his class challenging, but they also appreciate that what they’re learning has a direct influence on their lives. And Gurule said he can teach it convincingly because he has struggled with finances in his own life.

“I was one of those people that made a lot of these financial mistakes,” he said. “A lot of this comes from real life. I think that every kid should be required to take something like this.”

The class also has also sparked a positive reaction from parents, Costa said. Students will go home and talk about what they’ve learned, and parents then reach back out to Gurule asking where this kind of class was when they were in high school.

But like many teachers, Gurule said his biggest struggle is getting students to be engaged who are not motivated in school. For the most part, Gurule said, students are engaged and enjoy his class.

“Some kids just don’t want to do anything, and that part is hard, especially in a class like this where you know that they need it,” Gurule said. “I know not every kid in there needs to know how to solve a quadratic equation, but I know every kid in there needs to know how a credit card works.”

Scull, a junior this year, said she struggled with math in years past. She was placed in the financial Algebra 2 class this year, which she likes because she can immediately see its relevance. When she graduates, she hopes to become a chef.

“I feel like I can understand it more and apply it to life more than, say, geometry or regular algebra,” Scull said. “I think it’d be cool if other schools offered this because that way, when young people get out of high school, they’ll hopefully know what to do. Would you rather live paycheck to paycheck, or would you rather budget and save and know what you’re doing?”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

To reinvent career education, these Indiana districts are making up their own rules

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems. Decatur is one of seven districts in a new state initiative aimed at preparing kids for careers.

An Indianapolis school district will get more flexibility under a new state initiative that aims to change how students learn and prepare for jobs.

Decatur Township will join six other districts in a coalition that allows them to bypass certain state rules so students get more practical experience and share ideas to form more work-based study opportunities with local employers. The coalition was created by a law passed this year that is based on model law from one of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.

The main rules that the coalition districts are looking for extra latitude on include allowing students to waive classes, such as Algebra 2, so they can gain work experience that might lead to a job or industry credential. The coalition would also like extra flexibility with teacher licensure so they can bring into the classroom experts in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

Read: Indiana school districts could sidestep state law under a new proposal encouraging ‘innovation’

Decatur Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said the coalition is working to put some of the new plans and programs in place for next school year. Being part of this collaborative group actively sharing ideas, he said, might help them stretch their resources and find new ways to give students more freedom to figure out their post-high school plans.

“Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do this because,’ it’s more of a, ‘Why can’t we do this? How do we get around these obstacles’?” Prusiecki said.

The Indiana State Board of Education gave the coalition, called the “Coalition of Continuous Improvement School Districts,” the go-ahead to start planning at its meeting earlier this month. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said this effort goes beyond just Indiana, as extending opportunities for career and technical education is becoming increasingly popular nationwide.

“Work-based study is definitely a buzz word around the country,” Behning told state board members. “How do we make school, and develop those skills in students, where everyone is not necessarily going to get a baccalaureate degree, but certainly can come out of school with a skill that will provide them employment outside of K-12.”

Earlier this year, when lawmakers were debating the bill, several Hoosier educators testified that courses like Algebra 2, which lawmakers made a requirement for graduation in 2007, interfere with students pursuing other opportunities — particularly if they are not interested in earning a four-year college degree.

Some schools, such as Noblesville High School, have already created Algebra 2 alternatives that some educators say are just as rigorous as the course, but have more real-world applications. Batesville, one of the districts that championed the original legislation, has also already created the kinds of local business partnerships that Prusiecki said he and other coalition members are looking to as examples.

Prusiecki said students would still have to follow the state’s new graduation pathways requirements. But with the freedom the coalition allows, they could substitute traditional courses in math or science with experiences in internships that could lead to a career.

“How do we connect (students) with these partnerships and relationships with businesses so we can get them high-wage, high-demand jobs?” Prusiecki said.

The coalition is also requesting the ability to create its own district teacher licenses. The licenses don’t have to meet the usual accreditation requirements from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Teachers would still have to follow rules for criminal background checks, but the coalition members hope the licenses would have fewer requirements and let more people teach classes in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

“The current ways (to be licensed) just seem to be a little cumbersome,” Prusiecki said. “This coalition is just trying to make opening those doors a lot wider so we can get things done possibly more efficiently, faster, and even possibly on a larger scale.”

But the state already has a workplace specialist permit, which can be earned by a person with experience in skilled trades or areas relevant to classes in a career center or a high school career and technical education program. It doesn’t require a college degree, but it does require applicants to pass a training and a basic skills exam. The coalition district law waives those rules and others for prospective educators.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s confused by the licensure waiver, which was not discussed during the state board meeting earlier this month or during the legislative session.

“I’m not going to pass a lot of judgement until I know more, but I need to hear why they need a different path that isn’t already available,” Meredith said. “There’s already such flexibility, it’s not super rigid with a workplace specialist.”

The coalition would still require that teachers be allowed to negotiate pay and benefits through their union.

The coalition districts still need the state to sign off on specific plans for what class pathways, teacher license options, or credential partnerships and opportunities they want to offer.

There’s an accountability piece to the coalition as well, Behning said, that gives districts more flexibility if they can show their efforts are leading to students getting jobs. Each year, the coalition must make a report to lawmakers on teacher qualifications and how the coalition affects certain metrics, such as graduation rate. Those metrics also have to include how much coalition work is costing each district, what work-based study opportunities students get from employer partners, and whether students are ultimately employed by partner organizations full-time.

Prusiecki did not want to reveal who the district is considering partnering with, but those agreements are in the works, and plans will need to be made quickly before the next school year.

“There’s a lot of risk-taking in this, and the piece of it, too, is that we’re putting a spotlight on ourselves as a school district,” Prusiecki said. “We’re willing to step out there and take those risks so we can help our communities.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

What’s so hard about teaching ‘soft skills’? More than Indiana policymakers might think

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township.

Indiana schools have a long list of specific topics students must learn about before they graduate that are enshrined in state law — the U.S. Constitution, the Holocaust, the effects of alcohol and drugs. Soon, “employability skills” will join them.

Also known as “soft skills” and “21st Century Skills,” these are the intangible abilities that students might be expected to have once they graduate from high schools, and they have been part of the school experience for decades. Sometimes the skills in question focus more on character or morality, while other times — especially in high schools — they focus on job-readiness. But they all boil down to figuring out how to teach students skills that are academics-adjacent and, often, hard to measure.

While schools have been trying to teach these skills for years, they have been highlighted recently by policymakers and employers as critical for post-high school success. But, education researchers and advocates worry, legislating these programs can be a challenge — and might not lead to noticeable changes.

“Good schools have always done this,” said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and policy firm. “But what often happens is it’s just one more thing that people have to do, and they end up checking that box.”

Under a law that passed this past spring with broad bipartisan support, all schools will have to incorporate these skills into their lessons beginning in 2019. The law comes as Indiana policymakers have made a big push to encourage “college- and career-readiness,” an education buzzword that has permeated conversations about recently adopted graduation requirements and city-led college access projects.

The bill itself is vague and says schools have to teach these skills across all subjects and occasionally create activities or special events on career awareness and development. The topics to be taught are specific to grade levels, spanning “basic employment concepts,” choosing careers based on interests and skills, job or higher education counseling, hands-on experiences, and workplace visits.

There is no method laid out for measuring schools’ performance or assessing the material.

The idea for the bill came from Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas, who has long lobbied for such policies. The message could be as broad as encouraging conscientiousness and punctuality or as specific as teachers greeting each student in the morning with a firm handshake.

“These are core foundational skills that every person should have,” Freitas said. “It’s relevant today, it was relevant yesterday, and it’s going to be relevant tomorrow.”

The model that Indiana schools will have to eventually follow first requires the Indiana Department of Education to create employability skill standards, which the state board will eventually have to approve.

State officials won’t necessarily be starting from scratch — The U.S. Department of Education has developed an outline for teaching these skills and resources for schools, such as a checklist of academic and critical thinking skills that can be used to build lessons.

Indiana’s biggest challenges likely will be rolling the policy out in a way that ensures these skills are actually taught, taught well, and don’t become an “unfunded mandate.”

Jonathan Plucker, a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies education policy and talent development, whose work has centered on designing assessments to measure topics like creativity and collaboration, said requiring schools to teach the skills can be a bigger obstacle than states realize.

“We don’t have great assessments for a lot of these things, so it is difficult to gauge whether you are doing a good job teaching students,” Plucker said. “There’s nothing in here about accountability, reporting, monitoring or assessment, and that’s how we ensure policies get enacted. You would never write a tax bill without any of those things.”

Plucker also thinks schools need to think long-term about what skills students may need in the future, not preparing them for the current job market.

“It would be much more powerful to take the longer-haul view of how are we educating them for the jobs of tomorrow, like where are we working in creativity and communication skills, collaboration skills?” Plucker said. “How are we helping them prepare for the jobs that we know are going to be the vast majority of career opportunities when they get out?”

Some schools already have programs in place. At Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township, their version of a soft skills program has focused on positive behavior. As the Robey Rockets, their motto is “BLAST” — Be Respectful, Lifelong learning, Active listening, Safety, Taking responsibility.

Most schools in the district have something similar, Principal Ben Markley said. The Garden City Gators have the three Gs, while the Bridgeport Knights have an “ARMOR” shield. In other districts, such as Franklin Township, South Creek Elementary School uses “GREAT” to encourage Generosity, Respect, Effort, positive Attitude, and Trustworthiness. It might seem simple, but Markley said he’s noticed its effects.

“You’ve got to have a common language,” Markley said. “When students go to physical education class or to art or to music … having a framework that they can count on, that they can improve upon over time, it is something that makes a difference for our kids.”

It’s unclear how much implementing the program will cost. Fiscal analysts from the Legislative Services Agency said the provisions in Senate Bill 297 would increase work for state education department employees, as well as districts carrying out another piece of the legislation — the Work Ethic Certificate program. The program is currently being tried out in 18 districts, and it partners districts and local employers together to create a credential students can earn if they demonstrate employability skills while in high school.

The Department of Workforce Development has issued grants to districts to support their work, but this year’s bill didn’t include any additional funding to expand the work ethic certificate program. It’s possible that could come next year, when lawmakers meet to craft the state’s next two-year budget.

Freitas said he’s really excited to see the plans take shape, and he knows some schools might already be working on these skills without the state requiring it. He said it’s not necessary that they hire any special teachers — it’s about focusing on the lessons and working soft skills into what’s already being taught.

“I see it embedded within the curriculum,” Freitas said. “Ten years from now, I think it’s important for everyone to be respectful to each other, civil to each other. So it has nothing to do with, ‘are they skills for the future’ — yeah, they are skills for the future. They are not going to change.”

This story has been corrected to reflect an updated description of Bellwether Education Partners.