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A modern approach to an old-school problem, teaching kids math

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California has nearly a 1,000 charter schools, making it the most in the nation. Thirty-five of those are in the Oakland Unified School District. Charter school popularity has spurred education pedagogy research, the documentary Waiting for Superman, and has left lots of people wondering what these independent schools have to offer.

One charter, Oakland Unity High School, is so small that it rents its campus from Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Oakland. It’s transforming how its students do math homework by using Khan Academy, a non-profit educational program developed on YouTube by educator Salman Khan. While most schools use Khan Academy for its video lectures, Oakland Unity uses it for the randomly generated exercises that facilitate independent learning.

At Unity, all schoolwork happens on a tablet or at a desktop. Ninth grade algebra students are armed with not only pencils, paper, and calculators, but school-provided tablets that stream Khan Academy lessons.

Peter McIntosh, a math teacher at Unity, is an advocate of Khan Academy because he believes it changes how students do math. In the past, for instance, “they copied it, someone else did it for them, or, basically, they handed in a sheet of paper with some stuff on it but, when you really looked at it, it was more of an attempt just to hand in a piece of paper - assuming they’d get some partial credit,” McIntosh says

And McIntosh says Unity did present the information in a variety of ways, but students weren’t using it to do their homework. McIntosh suspects that most students looked at the problems in the textbook, perhaps attempted them for a minute or two, and gave up when they didn’t understand them quickly. Those who still wanted a grade on the assignment would write as much as they could to give the illusion that work was put in, thinking it was better to get some points rather than no points.

Khan is interactive, almost like a video game. After students login, they can choose the skill they would like to work on. A non-threatening cream screen appears within the browser with instructions written at the top – things like, “Find the value of Angle C” with a figure drawn below.

Most of McIntosh’s class uses paper and pencil to solve the problem off of the tablet screen, but Khan does allow you to pull up a scratchpad to write in different colors right beneath the instructions. According to McIntosh, Khan one-ups the textbook in its ability to provide quick help for each problem.

It may seem like Khan eliminates the need for teachers because students can sit in front of the screen and figure it out for themselves. But McIntosh is quick to defend this new teaching process. Khan, he explains, takes the guesswork out of the equation by giving him the tools to track his students’ progress. So when one student is struggling, he can see how and where – and help. Now, when he does a problem on the board, it’s a concept everyone is struggling with.

As McIntosh provides his class with extra examples and individual attention, Khan teaches struggling students through repetition.

Ninth grader Diego Rosas is talking about a set of eight homework problems called a stack. Because students have to do an additional eight problems every time they answer one question wrong, many worry that Khan forces students to do too much work. Diego predicts he does about five extra hours of work each week on Khan, but other students like Marcella Resaga complain they put in much more time.

Principal Samuel Brewer recognizes the worry but sees the stacks as a way for students to take ownership of their math progress.

The evidence of Principal Brewer’s theory is in the numbers: since the school started using Khan last summer, Unity has increased its ninth grade math scores from 76 to 94 percent on the California Standardized Test – a 38 percent increase, which Principal Brewer attributes to what Unity likes to call the “Khan Effect.”

By continuing to use Khan Academy in their math classes, Unity Charter High School hopes to give students a new sense of responsibility and control of their academic success.

“The secret is getting a kid to develop real confidence in their ability and then to just kind of get them over the hump that it’s okay to struggle with this stuff,” says Brewer. “That’s what we’re seeing kids do. I think that’s the most exciting part. The perseverance - just seeing that develop.”

Stephanie Scerra is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.