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Young Leaders Transforming Ed.: Karim Kai Ani

Karim Kai Ani is a guy who asks interesting questions and then translates them into real-world math lessons: “Do people with small feet pay more for shoes?” (ratio and proportion); “Have video-game consoles followed Moore’s Law?” (exponential growth); “Is ‘Wheel of Fortune’ rigged?” (percentage and probability).

At a time when many education reformers and innovators are focused on high-tech and expensive solutions, his approach is refreshingly simple: Make math interesting.

I asked Ani, a former middle school math teacher and founder of Mathalicious, how our current math content is “broken.” Here’s what he said:

“First, it’s irrelevant. Open a typical textbook—even on an iPad—and you’ll still see questions like, ‘Two trains leave Central Station at noon traveling in opposite directions. At what time will they ...’ Stop right there. Nobody cares. And when students don’t care, they either tune out or act out. Ask any first-year teacher what their biggest challenge is, and I guarantee they’ll say classroom management. And that ties straight back to content that’s irrelevant, unimaginative, and that does not engage students. Period.

“The second problem is that math is often presented in a way that makes no sense. Take an algebra topic like writing the equation of the line between two points. Many teachers will simply list the steps. ... It’s no wonder that so many students view math as random and meaningless.

“We’ve lost sight of what math really is, and why we want students to learn it in the first place. At its core, math is a way of thinking. At various points in our human history, we had questions about how to do something, about how the world works, and math was the tool that we invented to answer them. Which is to say: the world existed first. Math came next. But that’s not how we teach it.

“I’m convinced that fixing math education is actually really simple: We need to ask better questions that allow students to engage in math naturally. You can ask, ‘The 16GB iPad costs $499. The 32GB version costs $599. At this rate, how much should the 64GB iPad cost?’

“Students not only have an easier time figuring out the linear equation, but, more importantly, they understand what it means.”

—Sara Mead


Removing Teachers at Will

Tying ratings of teachers to student achievement took a new twist on May 10 when the board of education of the Los Angeles Unified School District decided that all members of Huntington Park High School must reinterview for their jobs, even though the school met improvement goals on standardized tests. The plan is expected to result in the replacement of at least half the faculty by July, when the start of school for the year-round campus begins.

What makes the decision so controversial is that the school demonstrated progress last fall on the closely watched standardized tests. But board member Yolie Flores, who is an alumna of Huntington Park High School and who represents the area in which the school is located, expressed frustration over the pace of improvement. “This school has been waiting for decades, and people say ‘wait a little longer.’ To me, it’s a stall tactic. I’m tired of waiting,” she said.

It’s precisely this kind of capriciousness that has preoccupied teachers and their unions since the accountability movement began. If the school had not posted gains, Flores would have had a compelling case. But it did post gains. Then, to compound the unfairness, the board announced that the plan is intended to replace at least half the staff. This amounts to a quota without any stated justification.

The LAUSD’s decision further confirms the need for tenure. If it is eliminated, which reformers demand, then what is to prevent the same kind of arbitrary move to single out individual teachers who, for one reason or another, have rubbed the board of education the wrong way?

Already Ohio, Indiana, and Florida have adopted strategies that link teacher evaluation to test scores.

No wonder there is widespread anxiety among teachers. When rules can be changed in midstream, what assurance do teachers have that they won’t be let go? Teachers in Huntington Park High School, for example, were led to believe that if they produced hard data about progress, which is the essence of the value-added model, they would meet the expected requirements. It’s not at all surprising that they feel betrayed and that morale is at its nadir.

—Walt Gardner

Vol. 30, Issue 32, Page 11

Published in Print: May 25, 2011, as Blogs of the Week
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