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January 16, 2003

One of the toughest math problems encountered in grades K-12 doesn't involve numbers and formulas. The problem that stumps educators nationwide is: How do you get students over the algebra hump?

Three SFSU faculty have been awarded $3.3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help solve that problem. Eric Hsu, Judith Kysh and Diane Resek will lead a 4-year effort to discover better methods for engaging students in algebra, in ways that will improve both their understanding and their pass rates.

Algebra performance in high schools is dismal, and students who can't master the material are effectively locked out of the "college track." And, while failure to understand algebra has long been a bottleneck for the college-bound, it now threatens to curb high school graduations, too. In states such as California, students can't graduate high school without passing a test that includes a healthy dose of algebra. Once in college, passing algebra is often a barrier for students who want to go into the sciences, especially minority students.

The NSF grant aims to discover teaching behaviors and practices that will improve algebra teaching, using existing textbooks and curricula. "We're trying to find techniques that work for real teachers using their current program -- whatever it is -- to make algebra more accessible and engaging," says Resek, a professor of mathematics at SFSU.

The SFSU team will take a unique approach. Borrowing from the "lesson study" concept in Japanese schools, the grant will pull together cohorts of teachers who jointly explore aspects of student learning. The team will identify new approaches, try them out in classrooms, then analyze and reflect on the new methods.

"Best practices emerge through conversations of practitioners, they don't come down from researchers at the top," says Judith Kysh, assistant professor of secondary education. "I'm convinced from my own experience as a teacher that good teaching practice comes out of teachers working together and discussing how students learn," she says. "They need to discuss what really worked as a way to introduce a topic, how students responded and which students picked it up."

The cohorts themselves are unusual. They'll consist not only of school district algebra teachers in Berkeley, South San Francisco and Jefferson Elementary school districts, but graduate students at SFSU who teach remedial algebra and undergraduate math majors who are interested in one day teaching school math. The undergraduates will assist in classrooms, gaining experience and giving teachers support for introducing new approaches.

The team hopes to develop a different kind of teaching culture that helps teachers develop their teaching skills and practices. "We're not trying to come up with a curriculum or a text book," assistant professor of mathematics Eric Hsu notes, "but to create time and space for teachers to really refine and reflect on the way they teach algebra."

The project gets underway in the spring semester with classroom visits, assessment and planning. Cohorts will begin their lesson studies in the fall. The team expects to advance a new model for teaching algebra by 2007.

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Last modified January 17, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs