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Puerto Rico closes the gap

After the island changed its math program, public school students leaped ahead of private-school peers on tests.

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2000


For all the debate about overhauling math education in the US, there have been few actual gains in student achievement. That's why news of a program in Puerto Rico has drawn attention from those interested in math reform.

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In 1992, the island launched an initiative in its public schools, aiming to close a 70-point gap between public school students and their private-school counterparts on standardized tests. Educators expected modest improvement, but got a lot more.

Six years later, children who had attended reform classes every year outscored private-school students by 58 points in math reasoning and 79 points in math achievement on College Entrance Examination Board tests. And though reform focused only on math and science, students inched 10 points above private-school children in verbal reasoning.

The scores left observers wondering what had taken place in Puerto Rico. Educators involved in the project - the Puerto Rican Statewide Systemic Initiative (PR-SSI) - pointed to better teacher training, methods similar to those of Japanese that focus on teamwork and problem solving, and a systematic approach that unified management with teachers. Now, the island is capturing international attention for its success story.

Simple yet far-reaching

At first glance, Puerto Rico might have seemed to some an unlikely site for a major experiment in math reform. About 83 percent of Puerto Rico's 620,000 public school children live in households where the income lags behind the federal poverty level.

But the changes urged upon the schools participating in the initiative - which currently include a quarter of the island's schools and by this summer will reach half - were far-reaching and yet fundamentally rather simple.

Interestingly, much of the thought behind them dovetails neatly with current practices in Japanese math education, although those involved with the program say they did not consciously model Japanese methods.

The program closely links science and math instruction. It simplifies the curriculum in both disciplines and yet keeps it carefully aligned with standards specifying what children should know and be able to do at each grade level. The end result is that teachers present students with fewer concepts over the year, but ensure that those concepts are being more deeply explored.

There's a practical, hands-on approach, with a focus on the visual. A math class could look like an art class, with kids cutting and pasting colored string to measure circumference. Other times, it resembles a gym class, as students hang tags with math symbols around their necks and then line up to form human equations. It's an approach that, at first, can appear flaky. At least, that's how it initially struck some Puerto Rican math teachers.

"Our math teachers tended to think teaching math was about teaching kids to add, subtract, multiply, and divide," says Hector Alvarez, curriculum coordinator for the initiative.

"They didn't think so much about understanding. They thought that if they stopped and did more hands-on things they weren't doing enough real math." But then, he says, "they realized kids were really understanding the concepts."

Group work, with lots of discussion and mutual support among the students, is a regular feature of the teaching method urged by PR-SSI trainers. At the heart of the process is the belief, central also to Japan's approach, that discovery of ideas must be done by the students. While traditional US methods require the teacher to explain a concept and then assign problems illustrating its use, PR-SSI reverses the procedure.