Change the Equation's blog

This Guy's a Math Teacher

December 22, 2011

The sublimely inept customer service representative "Peggy" in those Discover Card ads is played by a math teacher near LA. Tudor Petrut was a well-known actor in Romania before coming to the US. He now teaches high school algebra and moonlights as "Peggy" on the small screen. His students reportedly love the Peggy schtick, and his ads have won him quite a following in the outside world (except, perhaps, among Eastern Europeans who might take exception to the fact that this 'Peggy' seems to be vaguely slavic).

The moral of this story is...well, I'm not sure. Really talented people go into math? At any rate, it's interesting to imagine Petrut in the classroom.

Hat tip: Alexander Russo.

How Is Your Local High School Doing? You Might Want to Ask Colleges

December 21, 2011

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle recently over just how many schools are failing according to No Child Left Behind. (The official, more charitable, phrase is “in need of improvement.”) The Secretary of Education said more than 80 percent would miss the mark. The Center on Education Policy, a DC think tank, looked into the matter and came up with a figure under 50 percent. The exact number may be less important than how we measure school success or failure. This has profound implications for school reform.

The current means of measuring schools' progress in No Child Left Behind, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), has few friends. Critics charge that it's complicated, statistically unsound and unhinged from reality. Is there a better way to gauge school progress?

Here's at least one possibility: See how well a school does in preparing its students for college. As a new report from the Data Quality Campaign makes clear, more and more states are able to do so. Many states now have the data to track a high school student beyond graduation. Did she enroll in some kind of post-secondary program? Did she need remediation? Did she make it to her second year? Schools want to answer these questions as they try to prepare students for college and careers.

In fact, AYP might have little to do with a school's track record in preparing students for college. A 2010 study of Florida schools found little correlation between a school's

Tags: higher education

Does Education Need a New Shock to the System?

December 19, 2011

Accountability was a shock to the American school system, writes Mark Schneider in a short paper for the Fordham Foundation. It spurred gains in math scores for more than a decade, but those scores have plateaued. Time for another shock, he argues.

Schneider chalks this pattern up to “punctuated equilibrium,” a theory borrowed from natural scientist Stephen Jay Gould via political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones. Complex systems like to remain static, the theory goes, until they are jolted into change by some big event—say, the meteor that transformed the earth’s climate and wiped out the dinosaurs. The systems lapse back into stasis until the next big jolt.

That’s what happened to our schools, Schneider suggests. He notes that Texas, which was the first state to put a strong accountability regime in place, reaped big test score gains soon thereafter—at least in math. Other states caught up when they created their own accountability systems. But Texas lost steam about 5 years ago, Schneider points out, and other states are following suit. The system has settled back into equilibrium.

So what new shocks do we need to prompt the next

Online Algebra Classes Are a Lifeline for Rural Students

December 14, 2011

Online Algebra I courses can be a lifeline for rural middle school students whose schools don't offer the course in 8th grade. A new study finds that the online courses can double students' chances of going on to more advanced classes later on.

All too many rural students don't even have the option of taking an algebra class in 8th grade. The study reports that about one in four rural middle schools does not offer algebra in 8th grade, compared to about one in five urban middle schools and about one in ten suburban middle schools. When we don't even give students the chance to get on the advanced track in middle school, we're stacking the deck against them.

The study does not attempt to answer the question of whether on-line or face-to-face

Is Your Child "Proficient" in Science? That Might Not Mean Very Much

December 7, 2011

Every state has to report what percentage of its students is proficient in science. That's a great idea--in theory. The problem is that states set the bar for proficiency--that is, the scores students need to pass the state tests--all over the map. As a result, "proficiency" doesn't necessarily mean anything. That's the major finding of a report Change the Equation released today.

Tags: science, standards

Turning Teens on to Engineering

December 6, 2011

Business leaders often find that good engineers are hard to come by, even in this tough job market. How frustrating, then, that relatively few young people choose engineering as a career. Only about a quarter of teens have even considered engineering.

How can we get more of them to give engineering a try? For starters, we can give them a better sense--or any sense--of what engineers do.

A new survey Intel conducted in collaboration with Change the Equation finds that many teens just aren't that familiar with the profession. When asked to rank a series of careers according to how much they knew about them, teens ranked engineering in the bottom half. Almost a third (29 percent) said they did not know about career opportunities in engineering. They don't know what they're missing.

The good news is that this problem is not insurmountable. More than 6 in 10 teens reported that they were more likely to consider a career in engineering after learning about the the average yearly salary: $75,000. More than half said they were more likely to consider the profession after hearing that the jobless rate for engineers is four percentage points lower than the overall national rate.

Most teens also warm to the profession when they learn about the exciting, unexpected

Tags: engineering, jobs & workforce

Poor Schools Are Getting Shortchanged

December 1, 2011

School districts often shortchange the schools that serve the lowest-income students? Why? They spend less money on teacher salaries in those schools. The students who need the most are all too often getting the least.

Researchers have long suspected this problem, but a new federal study confirms it. This isn't some nefarious plot districts carry out against their most vulnerable students. Rather, it's a structural problem. As teachers gain experience, they tend to move to schools that serve wealthier students. They earn higher salaries with more years under their belts, and that money follows them to their new schools. These inequities were hard to uncover, because districts can report teacher salaries as averages across schools.

So what to do? The Department of Education argues that it would not be expensive to set things

Computer Science Makes a Comeback

November 28, 2011

The message seems to be getting through in some quarters: It pays to study computer science.

PC World reports that the computer science major is getting hot again, at least at some of the country's top colleges. Professors at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Harvey Mudd and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology are seeing a surge in students declaring majors in computer science. (All four colleges top US News and World Report's list of the best comp sci and engineering programs).

Why the sudden popularity of the major? The Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs of the world have no doubt helped by giving the field a lot of pizzazz. But there seems to be a more prosaic reason: Computer science grads are getting jobs and high salaries, which counts for a lot these days.

According to an assistant dean at Carnegie Mellon, "One hundred percent of our seniors were placed last year. About 15% went to graduate school. The rest had jobs. We saw the return of the six-figure offer."

Even women are getting into the game at Harvey Mudd, where they make up 42 percent of computer science majors. Yes, that's less than half, but it sure beats 19 percent, which

Tags: computer science

High Schoolers Discuss Their Future

November 23, 2011

Today's New York Times includes a very unscientific survey of 15 high schoolers' plans for the future. They run the gamut from fearful to optimistic. One striking feature: Many of these teens are striving for careers that will require math and science in one form or another. Another: Very few foresee a straight and narrow path from high school to college to career. Some prefer a more circuitous path, and others feel that college costs will force them to make detours.

Here's a sampling of what they had to say:

Only one of the students, a senior near LA, seems to have internalized fears about economic competitiveness:

In all honesty, I am not positive about my future because I know that life out of high school is nothing more than a big competition, and I know that I am not even a challenge to the millions of people I will be with, competing just to live the American dream.

Another senior from the same school is keeping to the straight and narrow, but worries that financial pressures might divert him:

I plan on getting a job with computers after graduating from college.... At this time I doubt that my relatives or family members will be able to help me out financially in any way, which is why I work so hard...I am pretty sure about my plans and my future after high school, but you never know what may happen. I try to take it a day at a time.

A third strives for a career in aerospace engineering after a detour through auto mechanics. His dreams are inspiring, and his optimism is infectious:

After graduating I am going to a community college and getting a part-time job to pay for college. I hope to get a job at AutoZone to learn more about cars and car

Should We Pay Students for Test Scores?

November 21, 2011

Should we pay students to do well in school? Will money buy performance? A story in yesterday's New York Times strongly suggests that cash for grades is a bad, bad idea. On this point, the Times is both right and wrong.

In the end, it depends on what you're paying for and what else you're doing to improve performance. In 2010, Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that paying students for test scores didn't work, because it didn't help students understand what they should do differently to get higher scores. If anything, the practice may have discouraged them from thinking beyond the test and learning for love of the subject. He guessed that paying students to do what it takes to get higher grades--read more, do the right kinds of homework, etc--might  be more effective.

The AP Training & Incentive Program (one of CTEq's Featured Programs) offers another effective model. You can pay students to stretch themselves by taking on more challenging courses, but you have to give them and their teachers a lot of support to help them do well. As our story about the program shows, APTIP has dramatically raised the

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