Attempting to solve a tough equationTwo local programs attempt to address lagging math scores
By Nick Veronin
Silicon Valley is a bustling high tech mecca, but according to some local educators, Mountain View students — and students throughout Silicon Valley — are lagging when it comes to the one field of study most fundamental to the technology industry: math.
"Too many students arrive at the college level needing remedial-level mathematics," said Bruce Swenson, president of the board of trustees for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. He said many students come to Foothill and De Anza unprepared for college-level math and he believes too many have failed because of it.
Enter the Math Acceleration Program and JustMATH, two free, locally run efforts to help stem this trend and get Mountain View students back on track in math.
The Math Acceleration Program, or MAP, is currently in its third year and is held on the Foothill community college campus. Pat Hyland, dean of student affairs and activities at Foothill College, is co-developer of the program, which started on June 28 and runs through July 23.
MAP aims to help struggling seventh- and- eighth-graders hone their math skills, specifically algebra. Hyland calls algebra the "gateway to higher education," and identifies it as crucial to attaining a higher level of employment later in life.
"If you are not proficient in algebra by at least eighth grade, you are going to struggle mightily to get into college," Hyland said. "Trying to get employment in the Bay Area, other than the most basic entry jobs, is virtually impossible without at least an AA."
To get an associate's degree or higher, students need to be able to perform college-level math, she added.
This year the program is working with 60 students. Over three weeks, tutors attempt to understand each child's situation, and help address specific shortcomings., MAP runs the way math classes should ideally run in California, and in Silicon Valley, where an increasingly diverse population means that students are all coming into classrooms with differing needs, Hyland said.
"You have a classroom of 30 students who don't all go through the same stuff at the same time," she said. "Trying to proceed in the traditional lock-step curriculum automatically guarantees that some students won't be able to keep up."
The second program, called JustMATH, is an offshoot of the JustREAD program, which has been a part of the Mountain View Whisman School District for five years. JustMATH was implemented as a pilot at Crittenden Middle School in 2008 and next year organizers hope to have it up and running at Graham Middle School as well.
Molly McCrory, president and co-founder of JustREAD and JustMATH, said Mountain View students — especially those for whom English is not the primary language spoken at home — suffer from a poor foundation in basic math concepts, many of which are laid as early as kindergarten. Sometimes, McCrory said, this can be as basic a problem as not being familiar with names of shapes. JustREAD and JustMATH assisted 80 students last year with 120 volunteer tutors working on site at the school.
JustMATH focuses on assisting at-risk Mountain View middle school students by taking them back to these basic building-block skills they may have missed out on in early elementary school, either because they were not living in the United States or because of language barriers.
"We begin with the numbers," McCrory said. JustMATH students, who sometimes enter the program six years behind, then learn adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. "We move to ratios, decimals and onto geometry."
Taking the time to slow down and relearn fundamental skills is the only sure-fire way of getting kids back on track, according to Steve Schneider, principle investigator for the National Center of Cognition and Math Instruction.
"If you don't understand patterns, you won't understand equations later on," Schneider said. "I don't think you can be fluent in math without being fluent in your basic skills."
Schneider said that lagging math education is "a problem everywhere," but that in Silicon Valley, an area with many English language learners, there are many students who are unfamiliar with the school system.
The consequences of this gulf in math learning can be seen well beyond the classroom, McCrory said. Students may drop out or fail the exit exam without adequate math education, landing them in what McCrory called a "cycle of poverty" — where the need to make money supplants the need for an education, generation after generation.
She said that about half of her program's focus is developing a can-do attitude among the students, getting them to want to learn math and helping them see how understanding math will help them in the future.
"It's not because they're so bright that they can pass any test in any subject," she said. "It's the effort they put into it that determines where they will live, how they will live, who their friends will be and the jobs in which they'll be productive."
Schneider agrees: "To learn to do something well takes time."
Both MAP and JustMATH have faced numerical challenges in their own right, however. Hyland said organizers had to scramble to find the $36,000 needed to run this year's MAP. Donations and contributions from various college departments ultimately came together to fund the program.
McCrory needs to raise about $155,000 in a little over a month, if JustREAD and JustMATH are to open their doors at Crittenden and Graham middle schools on August 16, as scheduled. She is looking to the community and local business for support.