December 1, 2005
By Valerie Orleans
Three years ago, a group of Cal State Fullerton
professors gathered to figure out how to help middle school
teachers teach algebra and other math concepts to their students.
The result is an online program, PD-ROM
(Professional Development Resources Online for Mathematics), that
provides math instruction with concrete ideas on how to best convey
these topics to students.
“All high school students are now required
to pass an exit exam that is based on concepts and skills presented
in middle school mathematics, including algebra. There are many
students who will complete high school this spring without passing
this test, and school districts are looking for ways to improve
student achievement,” said Victoria B. Costa, chair and professor
of secondary education and one of the principals of the group.
The problems, Costa notes, are two-fold. Some middle
school math teachers have gaps in their knowledge and skills in
algebra and geometry. For that reason, there may be topics in the
curriculum for which they don’t have a sufficient background.
This makes it difficult for them to foresee difficulties students
will have. PD-ROM is designed to fill in those gaps.
The other problem is that some teachers who have
excellent math skills aren’t always the most effective at
getting the information across to the students, said Costa.
“The state has recognized that math skills
are essential to education,” said Martin V. Bonsangue, professor
of mathematics. “And who better to ‘teach the teachers’
than a combination of math and education professors.”
The group that developed PD-ROM — which also
consists of Harris S. Shultz, professor of mathematics, and Sandra
Lapham, administrator of instructional services for the Orange County
Department of Education — recognized that since teachers are
in classrooms for the better part of the day, a traditional approach
to professional development may not work.
“An online program made sense from a variety
of perspectives,” said Costa.
“First, teachers could do the work when it
was convenient for them. They don’t have to sit in front of
their computers at a specific time on a specific day. They could
fit this program in around their existing schedules. In addition,
they could explore the increasing variety of Web-based instructional
resources available to improve teaching and learning.”
Interaction with colleagues also is valuable, so
when teachers enroll each semester, they are part of a “cohort”
that moves from session to session with one another.
One of the key elements of the program was to ensure
that the professional development experience had practical applications
in the classroom. In developing the curriculum, the team looked
at some of the questions that were missed most frequently in the
state high school exit exams.
“What we discovered is that some of the questions
on the exam never appear in school textbooks,” said Costa.
“For example, students learn how to follow the order of operations
with integers, and they learn how to add and subtract fractions.
However, they do not practice how to use the order of operations
when adding and subtracting fractions. The result is that over 65
percent of students miss such a problem on the examination. Many
of the problems on the high school exit examinations have this similar
multi-step, multi-concept complexity.”
To help teachers address these gaps in instruction
and make links between mathematical concepts, actual math teachers
were filmed in the classroom teaching concepts associated with multi-step,
multi-concept mathematics problems.
“Teachers see the relevance of the classes,”
said Bonsangue. “There are techniques that they can apply
in the classroom almost immediately.”
Currently the program has enrolled teachers from
Orange, Los Angeles, Monterey and Riverside counties. Beginning
in mid-October, the PD-ROM organizers began working with students
working toward teaching credentials.
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