How One Summer Math Program Aims to Improve Odds of Success in Algebra

Summer school might bring to mind the dreary punishment of repeating failed courses.

But a California math program uses the summer break to help students before they fall behind. The innovative summer school experience significantly boosted students’ chances of succeeding in eighth-grade algebra in the fall, according to new research. It’s not enough to ensure they will succeed in algebra – most students were still not completely prepared — but it was better than starting eighth grade in the fall without the intervention.

The 19-day course, known as Elevate [Math], is taught by specially trained, certified teachers who use group projects and online video to enhance lessons. They help students during the summer before they take algebra as eighth graders. Those who fail algebra often don’t catch up.

The students spend three hours a day in teacher-led instruction and small group projects, and an hour doing online work through the Khan Academy. And they get a taste of life on a college campus through a field trip. Students who completed the program were more likely to reach a test score that indicates they have what it takes to pass algebra, according to the study.

The program, provided by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, is available this summer in 47 schools, in California and Oregon.

“The amount of students we need to reach is far greater than what we reach today,” said Muhammed Chaudhry, CEO of the foundation. He said the independent research assessment of the program’s effectiveness “gives us the resolve to reach more students outside of Silicon Valley.”

Preparation for eighth grade math has taken on new urgency as many states have transitioned to new academic standards. And growing body of evidence suggests taking classes again after failure is costly and ineffective.

The Elevate math program is a possible solution that tries to prepare students before they fail. It’s a holistic approach. It costs about $500 per student.

The study of Elevate math was published Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education’s Regional Educational Laboratory Program. The research was a randomized trial conducted by WestEd, a nonprofit organization, for the department. The study tracked nearly 500 students – about 250 in the treatment group and about 250 in the control group – from six school districts in the summer of 2014. Among those in the group that experienced the program, 29% scored high enough to be considered ready for algebra in the fall; only 12% in the control group did.

The program focused on recruiting students who had achieved scores in the “low proficient” and “high basic” range on the state tests during the school year.

The program has four main components: 40 hours of special training for teachers; a curriculum that focuses on linear equations, ratios and multiple representations, properties and operations, and transformational geometry; 19 days in-class instruction that blends online and in-person lessons; and a student field trip to college and higher education awareness nights for families.

The goal is to prevent the cascade of consequences linked to failing eighth grade algebra by boosting students teetering on the edge.

And summertime might be a good time to reach disadvantaged students. Other research has suggested that children who score lower on academic tests are more likely to lose knowledge – they regress – over the summer break.

The Elevate summer math program appears to accelerate learning, but it’s not enough to ensure that these students will ace algebra in the fall. The majority of students scored lower than what is associated with a high probability of succeeding in algebra. The program is not a silver bullet, and is best used as one part of a larger effort to improve math instruction.

“One summer gets you significantly ahead, but it doesn’t solve everything,” Chaudhry said.

Neal Finkelstein, a senior research scientist at WestEd and one of the authors of the Elevate math research, said the teacher training in the program could have more lasting effects. They train certified teachers who will go back to the traditional school year with improved skills in teaching math.

“It’s an opportunity to strengthen the overall teaching corps,” he said.

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