Math, Science Take Center Stage at SREB Conference on High Schools

By Michele McNeil — July 14, 2006 4 min read
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Twenty years after launching a widely copied approach to improving high schools, the experts behind the High Schools That Work initiative are calling on teachers and administrators to dramatically ramp up lessons and expectations in mathematics and science.

That’s because high schools, generally, are still failing to prepare students for college-level work in those two subjects, according to data released at the 20th annual High Schools That Work conference, which drew nearly 8,000 educators from across the country to Orlando this week.

Almost one in five students from the class of 2004 who graduated from schools that participated in the program still required math remediation in college, according to a survey of 6,535 students conducted in 2005 by researchers from High Schools That Work. The initiative, started in 1987, has grown to a network of more than 1,300 schools in 43 states that are committed to strengthening their academic cores, while bolstering standards in career and technical programs.

Data from last year’s 9th graders in the program point to other concerns. According to a High Schools That Work survey completed in April by 11,493 students in 129 schools, just 20 percent of those students said they were encouraged by counselors or teachers to take more challenging math classes; the rate drops to 17 percent for science classes. And only 28 percent reported they learned weekly how to use math to solve problems in real life, according to the results, which were released July 13 at the conference.

“As a nation, we’re hurting in that regard. But I believe it is possible to create a new talent pool that will be interested in math, science, and applied sciences,” said Gene Bottoms, the senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based school improvement group representing 16 member states. High Schools That Work is a product of the SREB.

Just 5 percent of students in High Schools That Work take four years of math and science with at least one year of Advanced Placement courses, Mr. Bottoms said. That number should be closer to 20 percent, he added. So in the coming months and years, he expects High Schools That Work to further push educators to accelerate math, science, and applied technology programs and further integrate academic and career programs.

That doesn’t mean just teaching students the Pythagorean theorem in an earlier grade. It means, for example, incorporating the lessons of geometry into computer-assisted design classes, he said. In the simplest terms, it means making the difficult and often daunting subjects of math and science fun and relevant, so the lessons stick.

Getting Students Interested

Getting students interested in math and science, and taking harder courses, is most of the battle, educators at the conference said.

Here’s how one school tackled the problem.

Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Ark., is a small, rural, high-poverty school with 68 percent of its 360 students poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Less than 5 percent of students tested proficient on end-of-course exams in algebra and geometry in 2002. Then, in 2005, the passing rate jumped to 60 percent. “It didn’t used to be that math was a priority for our students,” said Lincoln High School master teacher Carolyn Farrell, who highlighted her school’s success at the conference during one of more than 100 sessions geared toward math and science.

To accomplish this, the school started raising expectations by requiring students to take four years of math instead of three, and starting students in pre-algebra in the 7th grade. Students were encouraged to double up on math courses so they could enroll in senior-year finite math and AP calculus, which are new offerings at the school. Students who want to drop a rigorous class must first meet with the principal and their parents, then wait three weeks before quitting. Students who don’t master a certain math skill are required to attend a 20-minute remediation session during the school day. One-hour academic camps are held before and after school.

Or there’s the approach of Fort Mill High School in South Carolina, where guidance counselors like Sue Gulledge, who have about 425 students each to track, make time for parent-student conferences with each 9th grader.

“We spend a lot of time trying to convince children that it’s the thinking skills that matter in math and science classes. Those skills will serve them in whatever they do in life,” she said.

Their freshmen are also required to take a one-semester course called “High School 101,” which focuses on developing good study habits and career plans, to help ease the transition from middle school to high school.

The middle grades are becoming an increasingly important part of high school improvement efforts, as was evident in the attendance at this year’s conference. Nearly 1,000 middle grade educators from 25 states attended this year’s conference, up significantly from eight years ago. “If we think we’re going to get this done without the middle grades, then we’re wrong,” Mr. Bottoms said.

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