U-46 hopes to make 8th-grade math less stressful

With the intention of helping middle school students with their futures, schools in Elgin Area School District U-46, based in Elgin, Illinois, are using a new curriculum that emphasizes reasoning more than rote memorization as students master algebra, the Daily Herald reports.

Algebra may be a “gatekeeper” for students in middle school: those who master it may have a better chance of success in high school and beyond, the article stated, citing “experts.”

A sample problem might look something like this:

A 250-gigabyte hard drive has a total of 250,000,000,000 bytes of available storage space. A 3.5-inch, double-sided floppy disk widely used in the 1980s could hold about 8 × 105 bytes. How many double-sided floppy disks would it take to fill the 250-gigabyte hard drive?

Overlooking, for the moment, the fact that the numbers are incorrect in the problem itself, let’s go with it, as it has been presented to the student.

\frac{250,000,000,000}{8 \times 10^5} = 312,500

Using the new Eureka Math curriculum—which, if this is a real problem from the course materials, doesn’t appear to know what a gigabyte is—students would be required not only to get the accurate answer but also to explain why they divided the 250,000,000,000 by the 80,000 to get the answer. That is, math under the Common Core emphasizes the logic behind the solution strategy as well as the correct answer.

The point to all of this, of course, is that technology enables students who know what to do to get the right answer very quickly. Being good at math is no longer about knowing what 250,000 divided by 80 is, since you can determine that by whipping out your smartphone, launching the calculator app, and punching in a few numbers. It’s quicker than looking up a science or social studies factoid or bit of trivia on Google. But you have to know when to divide and you have to know why you’re dividing those two numbers.

That is, it’s “still the same math; we are just going to be asking the students to do more explaining and reasoning,” the Daily Herald quoted Amy Ingente, K-12 math coordinator for U-46, as saying. “They use lots of hands-on manipulatives, place value charts, a variety of and more pictorial models.”

As for algebra being a gatekeeper, it is certainly one of the biggest gateways to a career in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and math), “beginning with algebra track placement in grades seven and eight, and continuing through high school and college calculus courses,” said Jon Miller, a professor of integrative studies at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who presented a paper entitled “Tomorrow’s Scientists and Engineers” at the 2010 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Not surprisingly, he and his team found that the degree to which parents encourage their sons and daughters to pursue STEM careers is also a big influence on the success they find.

In the K-12 world, as reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and based on the PISA test, an international benchmark, students in high-performing countries for math rely less on memorization strategies than students in lower-performing countries. The PISA study would, then, seem to support the use of a curriculum that requires students to reason and explain their math solutions.

District U-46 serves 40 elementary schools, eight middle schools, and five high schools in three counties; outside Chicago, it’s the largest school district in Illinois and about the 120th-largest in the nation, with more than 40,000 students.

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.