Wednesday, December 20, 2006

KIPP Success in DC

What do you get when you take a 23 year old economics major with two years of Teach For America experience, the KIPP model of teacher management and a belief that most math textbooks have a serious flaw, mix in a little youthful exhuberance and frankly arrogance? A 61 point increase in math test scores amoung 80, mostly poor, mostly African American DC school kids.

Jay Mathews has the story of Lisa Suben. A good read, as is typical of Mathews work.

Suben has produced amazing results, largely through the creation of her own lesson plans, instead of using KIPP's prepared plans. Suben noted that most math texts had a significant flaw, they isolated concepts from real world application and understanding:
In D.C. KIPP has been using the Saxon math series, a no-frills approach that often works well with students whose parents never went to college. Suben said she did not have anything against Saxon. She still has copies of Saxon books and a rival program, Everyday Math, in her classroom. But she thought all the textbooks she had seen had flaws.

"I've found that most traditional textbooks oversimplify and isolate concepts, and yet, are still too difficult for non-readers to use. They don't generally push students to think, but offer repetitive, and boring, practice," she said. She started writing each lesson nightly. This was a remarkable feat of youthful energy when you consider that KIPP teachers work 10 hours a day, and Suben was putting in another three hours each night at home composing the next day's lesson on her Dell laptop.

Suben said: "My primary goal as a teacher is to help my students understand the reasoning behind math rules and procedures. I have several core beliefs about this: (1) Understanding is constructed by the learner, not passively received from the teacher. (2) Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible. (3) Understanding is galvanized through communication. (4) Understanding is only valuable when you reflect on it and question it."9emphasis added)
Much of what Suben seems to be talking about is that math is not just concepts and drill and kill. Sure, you have to have some basic, boring drilling to first understand the basic concepts, but that is where much math instruction ends. Suben was asking kids to take an active part in their learning and pushing them to a higher standard, even using 8th grade math texts to push her fifth graders to think more:
"I certainly refer to traditional textbooks for ideas and guidance as I write," Suben said. "My sequence and pace are set by a long-term plan that I have designed to catch the students up on second-, third- and fourth-grade material as well as introduce every single D.C. public schools fifth-grade standard by testing time. I model my word problems after the eighth-grade text that I used in Louisiana because those problems require the level of understanding that I am looking for. I focus on non-traditional problems so that students are forced to think."
Suben has been successful for one year, the test for her curriculum will be two-fold. First, can she repeat her successes with another crop of students. Second, can someone else replicate her successes with in a different environment. If the answers to both of these questions are yes, then Suben may be the next math guru that can turn mathematics education on its head.

Good for her.

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