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Intensified Algebra Program Helps Freshman Stay On Track For Success

Researchers in curriculum development at UIC’s Learning Sciences Research Institute know that successful, small-scale education reforms can sometimes lose their spark when they’re introduced to a wider audience of classrooms and schools. LSRI researcher Jim Lynn and his team set out to investigate how to help struggling ninth-graders succeed in algebra. Even in the early stages the Intensified Algebra Project showed promise beyond the research setting.

Lynn and his team looked to increase learning, raise test scores, and help students see themselves as intelligent people capable of doing math well. Research shows that students’ self-perception influences their success in a subject. The goal of the program “is to help underprepared students catch up to their peers, so they can be successful in algebra and in future math courses,” said Lynn, who also serves as UIC ‘s Office of High School Development’s Executive Director.

Intensified Algebra, or IA, is a  $3.9 million, design-based research project funded by the National Science Foundation. During the 2012-13 school year, more than 24,000 students and 650 teachers in 83 districts across the country used the curriculum.

With their partners at the Dana Center, out of the University of Texas at Austin, and publishing/technology company Agile Mind, Inc., the LSRI team developed and studied a comprehensive program for underprepared ninth-graders. Built around the double-class period structure IA is now in its fifth version, includes curriculum and instructional resources, professional development, homework, formative assessments and test preparation, real-time data analytics and reporting.

The IA approach involves surrounding a rich algebra core with supports to help students be successful. These supports include incorporating into the curriculum ideas from social psychology, such as the theory of malleable intelligence—the idea that a person can grow his or her intelligence with effective effort.

“We are trying to shape students’ images of themselves as capable learners,” Lynn said. “This is one of the features of our algebra program that we feel is unique.”

Early results show that the program is helping students make gains. A small-scale comparative study was conducted during the 2012-13 school year. On the multiple choice part of the assessment, students who used IA performed as well as their peers in regular algebra classes – although most expected that the IA students would have trouble catching up because their basic algebra skills were so far behind. And on the problem solving part of the study, the gains for the IA students across time were significantly greater than that for the regular algebra students.

Preliminary evidence also suggests that teachers find the program to effective and easy to implement. An external evaluation showed that 88 percent of teachers who responded to a survey said that they felt the IA program was likely to benefit students who have not traditionally been successful in mathematics. And 88 percent of teachers also indicated that using IA materials influenced how they teach mathematics.

“Influencing how teacher’s teach mathematics is very important, and the IA approach is to involve students in rich math problems and discussions, something that is not typical of how most schools and teachers come at teaching underprepared learners. So the fact that so many teachers reported that the program is educative is encouraging,” Lynn said.

“As a former high school math teacher, that’s one of the things I’m most proud about.”

— Francisca Corona