Voices in Education

Motivating Achievement in Algebra
Educators in four school districts are piloting a program to improve ninth graders’ performance in algebra, based on Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on motivation and University of Texas mathematician Uri Treisman’s work with peer groups. Treisman’s Emerging Scholars program, now replicated in about 200 college and universities, develops peer groups that provide support for first-year college students taking calculus.

“Often a peer can explain a problem in a way that’s different from the instructor,” says Gloria White, managing director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is collecting data on the project. “We think it will be effective for ninth graders.”

The Academic Youth Development project, carried out in Arlington, Va.; Evanston, Ill.; Madison, Wis.; and Shaker Heights, Ohio, brings together teachers and up to 30 students for a two- or three-week summer session before the students enter ninth grade. In addition to algebra readiness—concepts such as proportionality and problem solving—the students are taught that through effort and persistence, they can build their brains to improve their math skills.

“We call it effective effort,” says Laura Cooper, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Evanston.

The students also become part of collaborative learning communities, in which they become comfortable working in teams and sharing strategies to attack thorny math problems.

“Our early results are promising,” Cooper notes. “Our 14-year-olds, who have failed in the past and thought their academic careers were over, have realized that they can learn, and that 14 isn’t too late to start learning.”

About the Author:

David McKay Wilson is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes for The New York Times and university publications across the country. This post originally appeared in the March/April 2009 issue of the Harvard Education Letter.