William Johntz was casting about for ways to engage inner-city remedial students in math. Finally, it hit him: Give them harder material.
The year was 1963. But the counterintuitive approach that the mathematician, psychologist, and math teacher set in motion during his lunch hours in Berkeley, Calif., is going strong four decades later.
The failure of all American students to excel at math, particularly at high levels, has become a top issue among US educators. But minority students are an even greater concern. According to the 1996 National Assessment for Educational Progress, 78 percent of black students and 68 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders scored below the basic level for math achievement, as opposed to 39 percent of white students.
Project SEED (Special Elementary Education for the Disadvantaged) is out to balance that equation - based on Mr. Johntz's hunch that such students connect far better with rigorous math than they do with the remedial fare they are often offered.
The Socratic method
Its approach has remained largely unchanged since its start. Mathematicians are recruited to teach algebra, geometry, and calculus to kids in Grades 3 to 8 in participating public schools. They're trained in what SEED officials call the "Socratic method" of teaching: rapid-fire delivery of a series of questions designed to stimulate student thought. In an ideal SEED lesson, the teacher poses between 140 and 150 questions, but never answers a single one. The students ultimately provide all the answers.
The class analyzes wrong answers as earnestly as correct ones, until everyone understands what works and why. In order to keep all engaged, every student is called on at least once during the lesson, although any student who isn't comfortable volunteering an answer may simply pass the question on to a classmate.
To keep things lively, the kids learn hand signals (a shake of the hands means "disagree" and a wave of the arms means "agree") so there is rarely a moment during class when the students are not physically participating in what's being said or put on the board.
SEED lessons have a crispness and energy that begins the moment the instructor steps in front of the blackboard and greets the students with the words, "Good morning [or afternoon], mathematicians." It carries on throughout the class as students are required to both use correct mathematical terms and demonstrate proper classroom etiquette when they provide answers, make comments, or ask questions.
Sixth-grader Aprile Reynolds, for example, has just spent the past 45 minutes engaged in a lively classroom discussion about the multiplication and division of exponents in algebraic equations. She's a student at an inner-city Philadelphia public middle school with test scores that sag well below the average. Her class is not a grouping of advanced students, but rather a mix of kids of all ability levels, including several classified as "special education" students.
Asked to sum up her feelings about algebra, Aprile shoots back: "Fun!"
Student contributions tend to be plentiful in a SEED class. Arms are in the air constantly. Not only do students enjoy giving answers, they often like to comment and clarify. In Aprile Reynold's class, classmate Joannika Augustin has her arm back in the air immediately after offering the correct solution to an algebraic equation. "I wanted to tell you what law I used to get the answer," Joannika explains to her teacher.
The advanced math SEED students absorb in class isn't necessarily directly linked to the rest of their studies. They continue to take the math classes normally assigned to students of their age group, in addition to the rest of their ordinary classes. The daily SEED class must be sandwiched into the students' schedules as an extra.
But what SEED is really about is the confidence and love of learning that its instructors hope they are promoting in their students. Project SEED students have been tested and evaluated by several groups over the years, including the Department of Education, and studies consistently show that SEED students do better on tests of basic skills as well as on tests of advanced math.
One in-depth longitudinal study showed that 10 years later SEED students continued to demonstrate higher grades, attendance, and math skills. SEED operates on a mix of public and private funding, and participating school districts must agree to commit to the program for at least three years and to contribute whatever funding they can themselves.
But perhaps SEED's greatest difficulty is in recruiting and keeping the mathematicians it trains and then sends out to participating schools.
SEED teachers - apart from those who are able to boost their salaries by taking on administrative tasks - are paid in line with public school teachers. Most, with their backgrounds, could command significantly higher salaries in the business world.
The work they do for SEED is not easy. Each teacher is observed and critiqued at least weekly and they are required to participate in workshops three to four days a week after classes, both to improve their teaching skills and to continually hone their math skills.
Howard Baker, a trained mathematician and director of Philadelphia Project SEED insists that "never" describes the number of times he has considered leaving SEED for a higher-paying job. The work with the kids, he says, is too rewarding to consider abandoning.
But Hamid Ebrahimi, national director of SEED, which is based in Dallas, says that faculty turnover is a problem and that boosting teacher salaries is a priority.
In the meantime, Mr. Ebrahimi says, SEED employees continue to have great enthusiasm for working with urban kids. Some 20,000 low-income, largely minority children participate in Project SEED, which operates in seven cities.
You just don't know who will love calculus
Ebrahimi says one of his own favorite memories is of a leather-jacketed gang member who studied calculus with him in a SEED summer class and found herself in love with the subject matter.
At the end of the course, he says, "she just begged me to teach her the multiplication tables. She had never learned them earlier, but suddenly they had become both relevant and interesting."
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