Special Report

Web-Based Russian Math Curriculum Shows Positive Results

By Nora Fleming — March 14, 2011 11 min read
Mayo Elementary teacher George Tudor uses Reasoning Mind, which is based on a Russian math curriculum, to work with his 2nd graders.
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George Tudor’s 2nd graders sit quietly staring at white MacBooks at Mayo Elementary School here in Compton, a city in the geographic center of Los Angeles County with a history of high rates of poverty and crime.

One student works on double-digit addition and subtraction equations. Another tries to solve a math riddle. Another attempts to understand a word problem requiring basic division. An interactive blue “Genie” filters around the students’ screens, guiding some through instructional lessons, others through step-by-step solutions to problems, and commending many on providing correct answers to questions.

All students transcribe notes from their screens into black-and-white composition notebooks, organized into categories titled “objective,” “definition,” “remember,” and “problems.” One girl excitedly runs to the front of the room to ring a bell. She met a class-set target number for answering correct problems in a row called a “streak.”

The Compton students are using Reasoning Mind, an online-based math program modeled on a Russian math curriculum and developed by a nonprofit organization of the same name. The program is currently used at 165 public, charter, magnet, and private schools around the country by more than 20,500 students. Most of the schools and districts using the program, like the 26,000-student Compton district, have high percentages of minority and economically disadvantaged students, and are in communities whose schools qualify for federal Title I funding.

In the Compton schools alone, 1,170 students use Reasoning Mind in the district’s After School Education and Safety program, or ASES. Because of state curriculum requirements, Compton students can use the program only in an after-school setting, not in their day classes as preferred by Reasoning Mind. But even in this environment, where daily attendance can be variable and retention uneven, the Compton students have seen notable results in improved math scores and general math proficiency the past 2½ years.

Compton’s 21 2nd graders who used Reasoning Mind five days a week last school year outperformed their non-Reasoning Mind peers in Compton on the California Standards Test by a mean score of 86 points, with 100 percent scoring at the proficient or advanced level, and 81 percent advanced, according to an assessment performed by Reasoning Mind.

The results at the schools in Compton using the program are similar to, and in most cases lower than, the results seen at other schools using Reasoning Mind around the country, many of which use the program during core classes or in after-school programs. Across the board, results at other schools have shown improvements in state standardized-test scores, grade-appropriate math proficiency, and student attitudes toward math.

Russian Math Curriculum

The program is the brainchild of Alex Khachatryan, a Russian mathematician and scientist who created Reasoning Mind in 2002 after finding his son’s math education disappointing when the family immigrated to the United States. With the help of others, Khachatryan adapted a pencil-and-paper Russian math curriculum into an interactive Web-based program for American students. The program, which starts introducing some algebra and geometry concepts as early as 2nd grade, is designed to teach students in ways that the best teachers teach: adjusting content based on how students respond to the material in real time, and building on knowledge from the previous year’s studies.

“To really learn math, it’s not enough to solve simple, routine problems,” Khachatryan says.

“The reason why Reasoning Mind works so well,” he adds, “is that it brings together several important things: nonstandard problems to develop thinking skills, lots of interaction between students, individual attention from the teacher, and a solid, coherent curriculum.”

In standard implementation at most schools, Reasoning Mind is used in conjunction with in-class instruction in 2nd through 4th grades and as a core curriculum in 5th and 6th grades. Students log in to the program individually online and are guided virtually through grade-appropriate lessons and corresponding problems at their own pace. All problems are ranked and tailored in difficulty level based on a student’s correct answers on past problems. Students can request “hints” for problems they struggle with, and regardless of right or wrong answers, are provided a “Genie Solution” for the most thorough method for computing every problem.

One teacher estimates his 32 students can be on 15 to 20 different objectives or lessons, varying in difficulty level, in just one class period.

Second graders Lizet Onofre, left, and Dasia Hunt collaborate while studying math using an online program called Reasoning Mind in an after-school program at Mayo Elementary School in Compton, Calif.

Teachers use their own computers to monitor all students in the classroom and immediately see what questions students are getting right or wrong on each topic. Students having difficulty on lessons are pulled aside by teachers for one-to-one “interventions” or small-group tutorials. At the end of the class, each student receives a program-generated homework assignment based on what he or she was working on that day.

“My role now is so different from standing in front of a classroom delivering a whole lecture, not sure if the students are tuned in or tuned out,” says Leslie Brown, a 25-year veteran teacher at Bassetti Elementary School, a Title I school using the program in Abilene, Texas. “I know better now where my children are at than in a traditional lecture, where you don’t know until you’ve graded their papers.”

Brown, who teaches 5th grade and uses the Reasoning Mind program as a core math curriculum, says she feels she does more teaching working individually with students using Reasoning Mind, and is generally able to make better assessments of student progress, given the accountability tracking provided by the program. Other teachers echo those sentiments.

Reasoning Mind’s “accountability” system stems from program-generated assessment reports that evaluate individual students’ accuracy averages on each math topic, in addition to the difficulty levels of the problems they answer. Student results are compared between students in the same class and with the averages of peers at the same grade level. Overall target percentages are assessed for individual students based on how close they are to where they should be, according to grade level.

Reasoning Mind students also take regular benchmark tests that are likewise compared between classmates and their grade-level peers.

Overcoming Obstacles

After partnering with Reasoning Mind, schools send teachers to a weeklong professional-development training course to learn how to use the program and assess student progress. During the school year, teachers work regularly with an assigned Reasoning Mind site coordinator and continue to train for 100 additional professional-development hours each year for the next two years.

In general, teachers interviewed say they have positive attitudes about the program, particularly given the student-performance results they have seen, even, in some cases, after using the program for only a few months.

Some express minor frustrations, however, at the extra training hours required to implement the program, or the stress of trying to schedule time for student access to the limited number of computers in their schools.

In addition, some students have not adapted to the program as readily as others have, some educators say. Krista Marx, a curriculum instructional specialist at Elgin Elementary School, a Title I school with 774 students in Elgin, Texas, says there have been challenges for students who have visual-processing difficulties, such as dyslexia, or are English-language learners, in using the program.

Marx says her school has been working with Reasoning Mind to overcome some of these obstacles, such as adding audio features to their 2nd grade program. Other schools with high percentages of ELL students have worked with Reasoning Mind site coordinators to develop alternatives and support for students who have trouble with reading comprehension in English.

Most access issues, though, have been tied to funding. Given that the program targets underprivileged districts and schools that often lack additional resources for new programs, many schools rely on significant grants and donors to cover part, and in some cases all, of their program or material costs.

The ExxonMobil Foundation, based in Irving, Texas, helps support math and science education programs around the country and has by far been Reasoning Mind’s greatest donor, supplying close to $5 million for program implementation at various schools since 2005, in addition to other resources.

Gerald McElvy, a former president of the ExxonMobil Foundation and the current vice chairman of the Reasoning Mind board, says the foundation was attracted to Reasoning Mind’s innovative program curriculum and comprehensive professional development for teachers.

The foundation was also interested in the scalability potential of the program, McElvy adds, given what were deemed minimal requirements: an Internet connection, computers, and teacher-training and per-pupil costs. Under McElvy’s leadership, the foundation used connections and resources to expand use of Reasoning Mind to schools in California, Louisiana, and Texas.

Reasoning Mind projects that 30,000 new students will enroll in the program by the end of the 2010-11 school year.

However, some schools have had, and will likely continue to have, difficulty covering the standard program fees, not to mention the technology costs, which currently total $35 to $70 per student, per year, depending on program level, and $2,000 to $6,000 per teacher, per year.

A 2nd grade student uses the Reasoning Mind online math program at Mayo Elementary School in Compton, Calif.

Though it is hard to set an average total cost for a school, given various adaptations of the program, a standard-size school implementing the program for eligible elementary students averages around $21,000 for the first year, according to Reasoning Mind. Those costs decrease after the first year, given the fewer hours of teacher training required.

Grants and donations have enabled many schools and districts to implement program pilots for a year or full use for a set number of years, such as in Compton, which was awarded a three-year grant that will run out at the end of the 2010-11 school year. Compton’s situation is similar to that which some other schools and districts using the program find themselves in: unsure whether they can come up with enough funding to continue using the program when their grants or pilots end. Some plan on reducing the number of grades or students using the program to cut costs; others may have to eliminate the program entirely.

McElvy is working with Reasoning Mind to meet some of the initial goals the foundation deemed feasible, which may alleviate some of those issues, specifically having Reasoning Mind reach self-sustainability in the next few years. If the program enrolls 100,000 students, it will be able to cover in-house costs on per-pupil and professional-development fees alone. Less dependence on donors to support in-house costs would mean donations could be used to support new school enrollment and help others make the program more affordable.

But while immediate fees have been burdensome for some schools, philanthropies such as the ExxonMobil Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation see the potential that Reasoning Mind could provide long-term savings for districts looking to increase class sizes and decrease teacher salary expenses during tough financial times for schools.

The Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, recently awarded a $742,996 grant for a pilot program of Reasoning Mind, which will test whether one Reasoning Mind-trained teacher can affect the math scores and proficiency of 250 students using the program in different grades at several schools.There will be nine teachers trained, responsible in total for 2,250 students. (The Gates Foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.)

Sensible Approach?

While analysts at the Gates Foundation see Reasoning Mind as a cost-cutting solution for schools, some policy experts also suggest programs like Reasoning Mind may be the long-term solution for how to deal with inconsistent and ineffective math instruction in U.S. schools.

Julie Greenberg, a senior policy analyst with the National Council on Teacher Quality, based in Washington, says only about 13 percent of education schools and teacher-training programs in the United States provide sufficient coursework to train future elementary teachers in how to teach math effectively. Given the poor preparation of teachers, most students enter middle school without a solid foundational understanding of math, she adds.

Greenberg says her initial assessments found “real integrity” to the program’s efforts at providing a conceptual grounding in math for elementary school students.

“We know we don’t have the best human capital in teaching,” Greenberg says. “We also know that kids come in with all sorts of deficiencies that need to be remedied. … I wouldn’t rule out that a computer program may be able to teach math better [than elementary math teachers].”

While there have been efforts to improve the quality of math training for teachers, the needed program redevelopment may be too great for any immediate solution to improving students’ math proficiency, according to R. Jim Milgram, a veteran mathematics professor at Stanford University.

Milgram, who helped develop the California state standards in math, says individualized-learning programs that place less emphasis on teacher-led instruction, such as Reasoning Mind, may be a more viable solution for improving student outcomes.

“I can’t say Reasoning Mind is the only approach [to math instruction],” says Milgram. “But, mathematically speaking, the success of the underlying curriculum makes it an approach that is sensible and probably worth a serious look.”


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