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

Parents feel left out of the Gary takeover debate. This mom pushed to be included.

PHOTO: Photo by Samuel L. Love via Flickr
Gary's Roosevelt High School. Johnson's eldest daughters graduated from the school before it was taken over by the state in 2012.

Kendra S. Johnson braved an ice storm and sold candy to cover a $60 bus fare so she could testify against a bill that would strip local control from the Gary and Muncie school districts.

After the bad weather thwarted the Gary mom’s attempt to travel more than two hours to Indianapolis for an earlier hearing on House Bill 1315, Johnson raised the money to make it for Thursday’s next step in the process.

She delivered an impassioned speech to Senate Appropriations committee members urging them to make sure parents get a chance to weigh in on a bill that will massively change how their children are educated. The committee did not vote on the bill Thursday.

Parents, community members, education advocates and others have criticized lawmakers and other policymakers for failing to include more people in coming up with solutions for the troubled Gary and Muncie districts. The lengths that Johnson went underscores how difficult it can be for community members to make their voices heard.

“A lot of times, parents feel like they don’t have people or organizations who listen to them so they can have the strength and courage to speak up,” Johnson, a mother of six, told Chalkbeat. “If you don’t go take advantage of being included, it will be taken from you.”

The bill would expand on the responsibilities of Gary’s emergency manager, allow Ball State University to take control of Muncie Schools and put in place a new system to help the state identify schools that could be on the way toward serious financial problems.

The legislation builds on last year’s Senate Bill 567, which established that the state could take over districts. This year’s bill has seen ferocious, sometimes somber, debate in the legislature. Democrats representing Gary and Muncie implored members of the Republican majority to scale the bill back to allow more time for the community to be involved.

Republicans, such as the bill’s author and House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, have said the financial and academic problems in the two districts warrant decisive action sooner, not later. On Thursday, Appropriations Chairman Ryan Mishler said he’d hold the bill for a vote for at least another week to allow time for discussion. The bill already passed the House, so it just needs to make it through the Senate to be on its way to becoming law.

State takeover of schools has seen mixed results. WFYI Public Media’s Eric Weddle explored that issue in a new story, while also detailing Gary Schools’ decades-long struggle to stay afloat.

Weddle spoke with Sharmayne McKinley, principal at Daniel Hale Williams Elementary Schools about what she remembers from when the state first announced the district would be taken over last year. One of emergency manager Peggy Hinckley’s first moves was to buy new books. Their previous ones were 10 years old.

“You’d have thought we were little kids in the candy store getting supplies for our kids,” McKinley says. “That was a milestone.”

Johnson, 53, who lives in the Dorie Miller Public Housing complex, represents Indiana in the National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents and has been a parent advocate for several years now.

Because district takeover is uncharted territory in Indiana, there are many unknowns. Provisions in the bill that would make Muncie’s school board appointed and turn Gary’s into an advisory committee have elicited strong reactions from residents like Johnson who feel they’re losing their voices in their own schools.

“A lot of us don’t have the money to make the trip from Gary down here,” Johnson said. “The biggest reason I fight is so it can be said a voice was fighting for the parents, whether it was heard or not.”

Read the rest of WFYI’s story here, and find more of Chalkbeat’s legislative coverage here.

Indiana online schools

Indiana lawmakers aren’t cracking down on virtual charter schools despite calls for change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

Indiana lawmakers have killed three attempts to tighten the state’s charter school authorizing laws, even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for improved accountability of troubled online charter schools.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual posted dismal academic results, hired few teachers, and had spending and business practices that raised ethical questions.

Special report: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

But with proposals to tighten regulations facing pushback from influential education advocates, Republican lawmakers — many of whom benefit from online schools’ lobbying and campaign contributions — say there’s little interest in making changes.

“I’m surprised myself,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who authored one of the charter school bills. “People from all different walks of life had concerns about different parts of the bill. Nobody came to me and said, ‘This is a great bill, go ahead and proceed with the bill.’”

Still, Holcomb is taking other steps to strengthen virtual charter school policy. With the Indiana State Board of Education, Holcomb’s team has been collecting information on best practices in virtual schools across the country.

PJ McGrew, the governor’s education policy director, said he hopes to have a plan to revise virtual school policies for the state board to consider in the spring. It could take about a year for the board to change that policy if they decide to move forward.

Lawmakers’ hesitation isn’t really surprising: Indiana has made sweeping changes to expand school choice, and Republican leaders have seldom supported laws that would restrict choice — even when issues are raised.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the influential House Education Committee who has long advocated for charter schools and new school models, said he doesn’t want to “jump into something, making a judgment, without knowing what the answers are.”

He also pointed out that it isn’t always clear how the state should hold schools accountable in practice because education law can be difficult to enforce: “There is no education police.”

“I definitely see there are some alarms that we need to be focused on and alerted to,” Behning said. “But there are similar alarms in traditional public schools going off all over the place as well. That’s the place I think we do struggle with. At what point in time is it appropriate for us to intervene?”

None of the bills proposed by lawmakers this year dealt directly with virtual schools, applying instead to charter schools as a whole. And none of them received any hearings.

Kruse’s proposal, Senate Bill 350, would have effectively prevented struggling online charter schools — or any charter school — from easily replicating. It would have stopped an authorizer from offering a new charter to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically.

Three of Indiana’s largest online charter schools, including Indiana Virtual School, have recently opened second schools, which could help them stay in business if their first schools get shut down after years of poor performance

Two other proposals from Democrats, Senate Bills 315 and 406, went much further in dictating the results charter schools must show to enroll new students and open new schools.

Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat who proposed Senate Bill 315, said for his caucus, examining whether charter schools need more regulation and oversight has been a recurring priority.

“It isn’t a difficult question,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”

But lawmakers would be up against the charter school movement’s money and influence.

Indiana lawmakers, including Behning and Kruse, have seen campaign contributions from online education companies. K12 Inc., one of the largest online education providers in the country, has given more than $90,000 to Indiana Republican races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, another large national provider, has given more than $20,000.

Those online providers, who operate five online charter schools in Indiana, also have spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers.

Indiana Virtual School has also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana. Tom Stoughton, the founder of Indiana Virtual School, was listed as a registered lobbyist for the school in January, even as school officials say he has distanced himself from the school. Stoughton’s involvement with the school’s for-profit management company has raised ethical questions.

In the first filing period for 2017, Indiana Virtual School spent almost $12,000 on lobbying, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In 2016, IVS spent a little more than $13,300.

Prominent charter school advocates can wield influence outside of lobbying, too. They have said they fear more prescriptive laws could hem in successful schools and authorizers, even though they have agreed that virtual schools, specifically, need more attention and oversight.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat in January.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider virtual-specific policies, such as completion-based funding, making enrollment more selective, or even making them a different kind of non-charter school so enrollment and governance can be more controlled.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having the strongest charter school laws in the nation. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1.

Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools, has spoken in favor of making virtual schools a separate school type.

“We’ve got to turn this on its head,” Petrilli said. “It would be hard to do it within the general charter school rules which say you’ve got to take everybody … What we have learned is the charter school model and online learning are not a good fit for each other.”