Erica Siegel is nervous. As the end of her second semester of 8th grade looms closer, so does an ominous new statewide requirement. To enter high school, she and the rest of Maryland’s class of 2010 must pass a newly mandated, hours-long algebra exam.
“Oh, God, it’s really hard,” moans Erica, a 14-year-old at Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown, a suburb of Baltimore. Compounding her anxiety is the fact that her parents, like most of their generation, learned math a different way, so they can’t help her prepare for the big test.
“You try to help, and they say, ‘Well, that’s not how the teacher does it,’ ” laments Larry Siegel of his daughter’s coursework. “The way they solve for x is more complicated than the way we used to solve for x.” But starting late last year, Siegel and other Baltimore County parents did something they hadn’t done in decades and never thought they’d do again: walk into a public school classroom to learn algebra.
'You try to help and they say, "Well, that's not how the teacher does it."'
They’re not the only ones. As high-stakes grade-advancement and graduation exams have multiplied across the land, so have courses for adults who feel unable to help their kids. Though the trend is still too new to generate any national statistics, parents in widely scattered areas of the country are coming to the conclusion that it’s time to get back into the equation.
“The more involved parents can be, the more success children can experience,” says Steve Sireci, a professor of education and codirector of the Center for Educational Assessment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I think if the courses are effective, ... then the parents should be able to help their children, and scores will go up.”
But first the parents have to catch up. “It’s been 30 years since I had taken algebra,” recalls JoAnn Howell, whose son, Brent, is an 8th grader at Parkville Middle School and Center of Technology, also outside Baltimore. After finding her math memory failing her at homework time, she and about 30 other parents quickly filled up a nearby high school classroom to dust off their numeracy.
It’s not just the math problems that have changed since parents last squinted at a blackboard, according to Christine Johns, Baltimore County schools’ deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction—the use of technology has also changed dramatically. No longer viewed as crutches or cheating devices, calculators are now routinely utilized to help students learn. It can all be too big an adjustment for adults to handle on their own.
“I have parents calling me in a panic saying their children are failing,” says JoAnne Strickland, an adult-school instructor in California’s Napa Valley Unified School District. Driven in part by a state requirement that all students master algebra before they graduate, the district offers the free “Who Cares About X?” algebra class, which promises parents “games and real-life applications to help you get over your fear of algebra.” Twice a week, the instructor does just that, walking nervous parents through their children’s homework using memory games, concentration techniques, and even limericks.
That kind of approach, educators agree, is key to teaching parents. Patricia Baltzley, director of Baltimore County’s Office of Mathematics PreK-12, deliberately chooses teachers with “nurturing personalities” for the district’s free parent classes. The goal, she says, is to make adults feel comfortable asking questions and admitting, “I don’t remember this equation.”
It turns out that some parents even enjoy their three-hour refresher sessions. “I realized that I did like math and it was actually kind of fun,” admits Howell, who’s now confident in coming to her son’s aid.