Every student is his own math class

One basic question: Will Bobby Jones take math in high school? ''If I'm smart enough,'' he answers, averting his eyes. A basic answer. Self-concept, says an administrator at Franklin Junior High School, is most of the teaching battle here. ''Many kids have a very low opinion of themselves. They need success.''

When they don't get it, frustration mounts easily, and boredom sets in fast. When eighth-grader Bobby Jones starts to get in over his head in math, he says he will ''just scribble down any answer and turn it in. Get an F.''

But he never gets too far over his head, just as he never has to learn over again anything he already knows.

His math class is - in the tongue of the bureaucrat - a ''diagnostically prescribed individualized program.'' In other words, as the result of constant, computer-corrected tests, Bobby Jones works on lessons that are designed to teach him exactly what he doesn't know. And he learns them as fast or as slowly as he needs to.

In a traditional class, where the whole class is taught the same thing at the same time, what some are being taught for the second time, others aren't learning at all. Some students in such classes, Franklin math teacher Ray Collofello points out, get to the ninth grade without knowing how to multiply whole numbers.

At Franklin, says Mr. Collofello, ''we can back up to their level,'' even if that means to the third-grade level. ''And they learn it,'' he stresses.

In fact, the average of the Franklin program and others like it in California for both math and reading is over two months of tested progress for each one month a student spends in the classes. Six-year studies show that the gains stick through high school.

This is no experiment at Franklin. Rather it's a 12-year survivor of an unsentimental, Darwin-style California educational program where the weakest, least efficient operations are systematically canceled.

The idea is to fund model methods of teaching those students who make it to junior high at least two years behind their peers in the basic skills: reading and mathematics. -Junior high schools needed help if students were going to make it in high school, explained program manager Earl Watson on a recent excursion from Sacramento.

The state's answer, he says, was: ''Let a few schools test how to do it, and get the message out to other schools in the state.''

The catch is that of the programs set up by schools around the state - 17 originally - every year at least one, and as many as four, is dropped. Over the years, more programs have started than have been dropped, swelling the ranks from 17 to 23 such programs. The ones that perish are those showing the least student progress per extra dollar spent.

''It's against my philosophy to put a lot of pressure on people,'' the mild, low-key Dr. Watson says. ''But this really seems to get people working hard.''

This California Demonstration Program in Reading and Mathematics is the only state program with this kind of self-pruning clause that has actually cut programs, according to Dr. Watson.

It's been tough, he says, because even the worst are not bad. The key feature of the surviving programs has been the competence and initiative of the people who run them. Programs where decisions are made at the local schools and which select their own staffs, Watson observes, usually succeed.

The successes, like Franklin's math program, hold forth at statewide conferences, host visitors from other schools all year, and mail out packages of their locally written curriculum to any interested district. Franklin sent out at least 150 last year to places as diverse as Hong Kong and Sao Paulo.''The whole idea,'' says the program's director, Roger Shickler, ''is for other schools to pick up our program.''At Franklin, the math class has changed the entire character of the school. Its reputation in the 1960s was that of a tough, dangerous school. It still stands on the west side of Long Beach - the less prosperous, more troubled side - and still, in the course of a year, some 40 percent of its student body moves in or out of the neighborhood.But the halls are quiet and empty now while class is in session. Local merchants are fabled to have asked what happened to the student body - less troublemaking and hanging out in shops - after the program began. There are stories of students on two-week suspension sneaking back into school to finish a lesson packet. A high rate of teacher turnover has stabilized.A few years ago, 100 percent of the students here were receiving Aid for Dependent Children. Now about three-quarters do, and it is difficult to reach parents about problems. But math scores have continued to rise.Newcomers can plug into the math program here any time of the school year, so the high mobility isn't an obstacle. Fast learners are in classes with slow, so there is no stigma to working on more basic skills.Class begins with a ''quickie quiz'' to get students out of the halls and focus attention. It's not hard, so that everyone will probably get a good grade, Mr. Shickler says, to start class on the right foot. At the core of the class are packets of multiple-choice questions which take the learner through a lesson. A school computer corrects the results daily. The next level comes only with mastery of the first - tested for at a testing center down the hall. Teachers and aides wander the rows during class helping the confused.Once a week , Bobby Jones and the rest go to the math lab, where he finds his name sitting on a tray of creative tools he will use to illustrate with his hands what he is working on in his packets.Students don't complain of impersonality. Eighth-grader Ivan Morfin, in fact, says more traditional, teacher-centered classes make him nervous. ''I'm afraid she'll come and tell me I did (something) wrong,'' he says. ''I get embarrassed.'' He doesn't mind finding out from a computer that he has to do a packet over.Likewise, classmate Meri Halversen, who has always liked math best of her classes, likes both not having to wait on anyone in class and not feeling behind the ''smart kids.'' Probably a smart kid herself, she says students can compete with each other if they want to, ''and that's good.'' But they don't have to.Of course, not every school can afford their own diagnostically prescribed, individualized program. The California state Legislature spends over $3 million a year to support 23 such programs, plus four more that don't have responsibility for promoting themselves. Yet much of the cost, Dr. Watson points out, is in developing the original curriculum and spreading the word. So it can be much cheaper for other schools to copy programs than for the originals.''It's a harder way to teach,'' Ray Collofello says without looking up from his frantic paper work between classes. ''It's much easier to lecture to a whole class. But eventually you realize that you're not talking to the whole class anyway.''

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