Should Algebra Be Required in Our Schools?

Recently Marilyn Vos Savant, from the “Ask Marilyn” article of Parade Magazine (December 6, 2015), received the question “Do you think algebra should be required in our schools?” Marilyn’s short answer was “Yes.”  Her emphasis lay in the fact that algebra is a branch of mathematics that teaches students logic – how to think rather than what to think.

The mathematics branch of algebra is certainly an exercise in abstract thinking with symbols and structures to represent relationships in mathematics that justifies our operations in arithmetic. With the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, students are encouraged to manage and work through the reasons many of the algorithms is arithmetic work. These comprehensive methods of teaching arithmetic will contribute to a better understanding of the structure of mathematics and science.

Algebra is a foundation for topics in chemistry, economics, physics, statistics, and architecture. There is a plethora of technology that we use every day that works for us because someone knew enough about algebra to put together relationships to make our GPS, computer, cell phone, microwave oven, and car work for us.

Marilyn’s analogy to studying algebra in mathematics is similar to athletic training that includes various types of exercise equipment rather than always using one machine, such as a rowing machine.  In order to be physically fit, we should be doing kinesthetic as well as aerobic methods of physical training. In like manner, in order to be intellectually fit, many areas of study should be included and algebra is certainly one of them.

Galileo is quoted as saying “Mathematics is the alphabet in which God has written the universe.” Keep in mind that algebra uses the alphabet to delineate numeric relationships, mathematical algorithms, and logic. So it appears that Galileo would have agreed with Ms. Vos Savant that algebra should be required in our schools.

Bridging the Gap Between High School and the Work Force

While the focus on college and career readiness in our education system is not a new idea, and while progress has been made, students overall are still not adequately prepared for life after high school. According to research published last year by Achieve — a nonprofit education reform organization dedicated to raising academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability — roughly half of all high schoolers report gaps in high school preparation and the working world.

High schoolers are not the only ones shouldering the consequences of this lack of preparation though. Employers across the country are agreeing that there is a disconnect between the skills that graduates have and the skills that they need. Common themes are lack of “soft skills” such as effective communication, team work, punctuality, etc., as well as a lack of knowledge in critical STEM areas such as basic math and science prerequisite skills. Scott McLemore, technical workforce development manager for Honda North America, Inc., has experienced this in his industry first-hand and discusses how, “There is a severe shortage of people entering the manufacturing field, so much so that it could eventually result in millions of jobs going unfilled due to either a lack of interest, or a lack of the required skills.”

So how do we go about building this bridge? One promising solution is through partnerships between high schools and institutions of higher education. An excellent example of this is P-TECH, a public high school in Brooklyn, NY. These partnerships have been made to meet the growing demand for job candidates with STEM skills. Through this model, students spend six years taking both standard high school courses and classes specifically focused on a certain profession. These credits can amount to an associate degree as well as an industry-specific certification upon graduation. The goal is to have students earn college credit sooner while simultaneously gaining hands on experience. The result of this has been nothing short of optimistic. For example, in 2014 the four-year high school graduation rate for early college students in New York was 86.9 percent, compared with the citywide average of 68.4 percent, and of 205 seniors who graduated this past year, 57 earned an associate degree.

New Lexile Resource: The Lexile Career Database

We’d like to share our newest Lexile resource, The Lexile® Career Database. The Lexile Career Database is a new tool to help identify the reading ability necessary for career preparedness. It contains Lexile® measures for over 250 careers (to date) as well as important descriptive information for each career. The database is a result of years of research examining the text complexity of a variety of reading materials in various domains of the post-secondary experience.

The Lexile Career Database uses a common scale for readiness across all careers and is an excellent new resource to address the emerging emphasis on career readiness. With The Lexile Career Database, educators and students can identify the reading ability needed for a desired career and use this information to inform goal setting. It is the only metric available to compare and describe reading demands of careers.

The careers featured within The Lexile Career Database have been identified as Bright Outlook Occupations by O*NET, the premier online career search database designed for the U.S. Department of Labor. Bright Outlook Occupations are careers that are expected to grow and/or emerge in the next few years and offer large numbers of new job openings.

The Lexile Career Database is now available for integration into Lexile partner products and services. To learn more about licensing the Lexile Career Database click here or view our recent webinar The Lexile Career Database: Discover the Reading Demands of Prospective Occupations.

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Should Student Education Encompass “Life Skills”?

There is no denying that discussions on Common Core and standardized testing, which have nearly monopolized education news in recent months, are warranted and in need of special consideration. But in the midst of these extensive debates have we overlooked other critical aspects of education, specifically the teaching of non academic skills?

While there is not yet a concrete name for these skills, they are commonly referred to as “non cognitive skills” or “skills for success”. They include abilities such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, self-control, grit, persistence, emotional competence, punctuality, and numerous others. These skills cannot be measured by standardized testing, yet are essential for students to learn in order to be successful in higher education and the work force.

There has been an increase in support for teaching these types of non academic skills to students as studies have shown that a number of employers are growing more and more discontent with new employee skill sets. Particularly in a number of key areas such as oral communication, written communication, critical thinking, and being creative, students are more than twice as likely as employers to think that students are being well-prepared. This demonstrates a weakness in how we educate and prepare our students for the future. Students are not being taught the necessary skills that are vital for success and have thus created a gap between them and the workplace.

The implementation of these skills into school curriculums has gained momentum through avenues such as the 84.215H grant which is a Skills for Success Program that “supports Local Educational Agencies 1 (LEAs) and their partners in implementing, evaluating, and refining tools and approaches for developing the non-cognitive skills of middle-grades students in order to increase student success.” While programs and grants like the aforementioned have been implemented with success, there is still a looming barrier preventing progress for expanding the teaching of these skills — there is no widely accepted name for them. Because of this, policies have been hard to write and enact since the wording and intent are often vague and broadly interpreted. This has resulted in a lack of student preparation as well as the loss of time and resources — all because of simple terminology. So while it is still important to address educational issues such as standardized testing, maybe it’s time we dedicate more attention to defining and teaching these non cognitive skills. Skills that can provide a foundation for all other academic learning.

Coding the Curriculum

Years ago, schools across the United States widely offered Latin classes as an important part of a student’s education. Beyond allowing students to read great classics in their original language, studying Latin gave students tools for learning they could for the rest of their lives. The process of learning Latin allowed students to become familiar with a specific informational system, while also teaching them systematic thinking. This type of thinking is incredibly valuable, as it can be applied to all other learning a person does during their lifetime.

Nowadays, however, Latin classes are rare, and are often seen as an elitist indulgence. But without Latin classes, how will students gain this important system of thought? In a growing number of schools across America, and even the world, the answer is coding.

In an increasingly technological world, coding seems the obvious replacement for an antiquated form of communication. Not only does coding prepare students to have some level of mastery over the technology that surrounds them, but it also teaches the type of systematic thinking that Latin had in the past, providing students with the tools they will need as they continue to learn. Although it may seem like a niche subject relegated to computer science classes, teachers are finding ways to incorporate coding into a multitude of subjects. Students can use it in art class to create complicated patterns, or in English class to reenact scenes from Macbeth. As Tony Wan from EdSurge says, the addition of coding to this wide array of subjects returns “creativity, tinkering, and exploration to the learning process.” Coding teaches students problem-solving skills and inventive thinking – abilities they can use in the rest of their academic endeavors, as well as their everyday lives.

By incorporating coding into almost any subject a student can take, schools allow their pupils to look at information in a different conceptual light, and build fluency with coding language. This fluency will continue to be important even as the students graduate and enters the workforce, especially as an increasing number of industries add technical elements to their companies. Businesses are constantly increasing their online presence with custom websites and creating their own apps, and are looking for people who know how to code to create and maintain these tools. Even industries such as fashion and music are looking for coders to employ. By teaching students coding from a young age, schools are giving them an advantage in today’s competitive job market.

Proponents of coding suggest starting off children as young as possible, and there has been an upsurge in the production of toys that involve coding, like Dash and Dot by Wonder Workshop, that make the process fun and engaging. These toys allow children to become familiar with coding, even at a basic level, before they even enter school. The robots allow for open-ended play, giving children complete control over what the toys do, and beginning their experience with systematic thought. For those who don’t have access to these types of toys, many elementary schools across the country are beginning to incorporate coding into their curriculums. This act of teaching coding in school also plays an important role in demystifying the process, showing that it is not just for boys who are innately talented at it, but can be taught to anyone, including girls. This can help equalize the gender disparity in STEM fields, giving both genders the same chance to make their way in math and science fields.

Getting Beyond Frustrated

Recently, distinguished Professor Emeritus Timothy Shanahan responded to an article written in the Washington Post on his blog, Shanahan on Literacy (http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/). The article tackles the problem of “frustration” level reading texts that the Common Core State Standards stipulate are necessary for students to be college and career ready upon high school graduation.  In his blog post, Shanahan addresses a few misconceptions about what the Common Core demands, what “frustration” level reading really means, and what he believes teachers can do to help their students.

The goal of the Common Core State Standards is to prepare students for life after high school graduation. The standards stipulate the level at which students in grades 2-12 should be reading in order to meet the expected reading demands they will encounter in college or the workplace. Instead of highlighting reading skills as previous state standards have done, the Common Core highlights text levels. Unfortunately, the reality is that in classrooms across the country, many students are reading below grade level. For example, many students in 6th grade are actually reading at 5th grade level or lower. This makes texts at the Common Core-recommended level even harder for students to comprehend.

Much of the Washington Post article’s comment feed focuses on “frustration” level reading. Teachers everywhere are trying to find ways to mitigate the fact that many of their students are reading below grade level, and the Common Core demands.  To this, Shanahan responds: “The confusion evident here is a common one: the point is not to frustrate kids. The point is to teach students to make sense of texts of particular levels of difficulty.” He then asserts that teaching texts at multiple reading levels is the best way to reach students.

The Lexile Framework for Reading suggests that, for independent reading, students read books focused at 75% comprehension. This means students should select books in the Lexile range of 100L below to 50L above his or her Lexile measure. Texts in this range provide sufficient challenge to encourage students’ growth without frustrating or alienating them.

-Kate Pringle

A Response to Simon: College & Career Readiness for All Students

Not long ago, Stephanie Simon reported for Politico.com on what she called a “standards rebellion” in America.  According to Simon, “The backlash stems, in part, from anger over the Common Core … But it’s more than that. It’s pushback against the idea that all students must be ready for college — even if they have no interest in going.”  From Simon’s discussion, it appears that on the one hand, some policy-makers want to empower all students for college and/or rewarding careers; yet, other policy-makers call this elitist and say that many students need vocational rather than academic preparation.  Ironically, American College Testing found that high school students “need comparable levels of reading and mathematics, regardless of their post–high school plans.” (ACT, 2013, p. 6).

Recent research on the difficulty of reading materials associated with access to individual careers sheds some light on the issue. Williamson and Baker (2013) examined a randomly chosen linear systematic sample of 1/6 of the Bright Outlook Occupations identified by the National Center for O*NET Development using data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Fully 28.8% of the occupations in the study required only a high school diploma for access.  However, all of the rest required additional education beyond high school.  Using the Lexile® Framework for Reading to measure text complexity, the study examined the difficulty of reading materials associated with individual occupations and found that the reading levels associated with different careers varied widely.  However, while typical high school texts have text complexity at around 1130L (i.e., 1130 Lexiles), almost 70% of the Bright Outlook Occupations had median text complexities above 1200L.  Nearly 29% of the occupations had text complexity above 1400L.  Perhaps the truth is that the postsecondary world offers something for an extremely diverse population of high school graduates.  There are indeed a few occupations that may be accessible with only a high school diploma and typical high school reading ability.  However, the large majority of occupations require substantially more reading ability than is represented by the texts that high school graduates were required to read as they were nearing the end of high school.

The Lexile® Framework for Reading evaluates reading ability and text complexity on the same developmental scale. Unlike other measurement systems, the Lexile Framework determines reading ability based on actual assessments, rather than generalized age or grade levels. Recognized as the standard for matching readers with texts, tens of millions of students worldwide receive a Lexile measure that helps them find targeted readings from the more than 100 million articles, books and websites that have been measured. Lexile measures connect learners of all ages with resources at the right level of challenge and monitors their progress toward state and national proficiency standards. More information about the Lexile® Framework can be found at www.Lexile.com.

Maintaining Student Interest in STEM-based Career Paths

According to a recent article in EdWeek, among 2013 high school Seniors, there has been a 21% increase in interest in STEM-related careers, as compared to 2004.   The most significant differences were by gender. Among 2013 seniors who were interested in STEM careers, 38% were males compared with only 15% who were female.  Unfortunately, surveys of students in future graduating classes indicated an even wider gap between genders.

The most disturbing element of the recent report is the outcome of the surveys of high school Freshmen. Of those students who reported interest in STEM-based careers as freshmen, approximately 57% lose their interest in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  The federal government estimates that there will be around 8.7 million positions within STEM-related fields, as compared to the 7.4 million positions that currently exist.  In order to meet the demands of the future, it is vital that our educational system maintains and enhances student interest in the sciences, technology, and mathematics throughout their high school career. If students are expressing an interest in these areas early in their high school career, it is certainly an indication that such interest should be sustained and encouraged by their teachers and administrators.

As a mathematics educator, I am pleased to see the budding enthusiasm of high school students for STEM related areas. The challenge now is how best to encourage, support, maintain, and enhance their studies in the sciences to preserve that zeal and excitement and to ready those same students to develop their potential for success in college and STEM based careers.

TextProject: Bringing High Levels of Literacy

An exciting new series of webinars is now being offered thanks to the efforts of TextProject, a site developed by Dr. Elfrieda Hiebert, leading reading researcher and educator.  Devoted to bringing beginning and struggling readers to high levels of literacy through a variety of strategies and tools, particularly the texts used for reading instruction, TextProject now makes available to all of us the insights of influential educational experts.

From the TextProject site: This series of webinars on the Common Core State Standards offers educators the chance to hear from, and talk with experts who served in advisory roles to the CCSS development team.  In their webinars, experts will discuss the knowledge base of the original CCSS report, ancillary documents, reports of foundations and policy groups, current implemation projects, and newly published research.  The webinars will give educators the opportunity to focus on the core goals of the CCSS and to chart a course that supports literacy levels needed for the 21st century.

The first webinar, Research and the Common Core: Can the Romance Survive? by award-winning researcher P. David Pearson took place on January 25. Both audio and presentation slides are available at the webinar site.

Make sure to schedule these upcoming web sessions to schedule on your calendar now:

February 27, 2013

CCSS and Education Policy

Dr. Timothy Shanahan, University of Illinois at Chicago

March 26, 2013

Quantitative Measurement of Text Complexity

Dr. Elfrieda H. Hiebert, TextProject, & University of California, Santa Cruz

April 24, 2013

Key Shifts in Assessment and Instruction Related to CCSS-ELA

Dr. Karen K. Wixon, University of Michigan

May 30, 2013

Informational Text and the CCSS: Pitfalls and Potential

Dr. Nell K. Duke, University of Michigan

Teacher Effectiveness – More Than A Single Measure

With the recent emphasis on preparing students for college-and-career, many have argued that a single test or measure is insufficient for adequately evaluating growth or indicating that students have a thorough understanding of their learning goals.  As educators, we know that multiple measures allow for a much more complete picture of student performance; particularly, if we’re also using that information to determine which teachers are most effective.

Many school districts are now employing new investigative processes and instruments in order to identify the strategies and techniques that effective teachers use in order to ensure their students are learning. Classroom observation rubrics should consider subject-specific knowledge as well as pedagogical methodology. And these tools should be employed over numerous occasions and/or lessons.  Additionally, classroom observations should be made by multiple observers.  Another resource for assessment of teacher effectiveness might include student perceptions of academic support and teacher expertise. While student gains across various types of assessments, including standardized tests, are also worth considering in teacher evaluations, to use only one method of assessment does not address the complex and multi-faceted nature of effective teaching.

It is important to find a balance between the multiple measures that identify the most successful teachers and the strategies they use rather than limiting such evaluations to student performance on standardized tests.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.