Pinkerton Academy Revamps Way Math is Taught

Pinkerton Academy is ramping up the way it teaches math, with an eye to helping each student have the math skills they need to survive in the modern world, whether it’s balancing a checkbook or traveling to another planet.

Academic Dean Chris Harper recently sat down to talk about the different ways the school is helping its more than 3,000 students meet their math potential.
“We looked at our NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) scores, looked at teachers’ perception of student achievement, and decided we wanted to improve in both areas,” Harper said.
The key piece to both, Harper said, is, “How can kids apply the math? How can they transfer their learning to a new situation and use it?” Math is a tool, he said, and “if you’re not using it, it’s not worthwhile.”
To make it real, Pinkerton math teachers are using activities such as the “Barbie bungee jump,” a recent activity in freshman math that had students calculating how many rubber bands it would take to drop a Barbie doll from a second-and third-floor balcony.
“How many rubber bands will you need? That’s applied math,” Harper said.
Other initiatives include unpacking the Common Core standards in the way they apply to math. “Common Core is full of not just knowledge, but how you use math,” Harper said.
The administration has also brought in speakers such as Steven Leinwand, author of “Ten Instructional Shifts to Raise Student Achievement,” whose premise is instructing students so they can think critically about math, Harper said.
“You need to ask kids, not just what answer they got, but how they got the answer,” he said.
“Standard math” for the past few generations included having kids come in, review what they’ve learned, learn a new formula, and begin the cycle again, according to Harper. “We need to stop the cycle, to get kids to think and not just memorize,” he said.
The school has added courses such as Practical Math for the Consumer, where students learn about compound interest, investments and balancing the checkbook, “things that are critical in people’s lives,” Harper said.
Another class, Senior Math, is brand new, according to Harper. “We want to make sure when kids go to college, they can do the math,” he said. “We give a test, ‘Accu-Placer,’ the same one colleges use. We give it to juniors, and if they don’t pass the test, this is the course you take.”
In New Hampshire’s community colleges alone, approximately two-thirds of the entering students need remedial math. “That,” Harper said, “is too much.”
Pinkerton opened its Math Center last year and received 7,097 separate student visits from approximately 708 students, he said. And 92 percent of the students visiting the Math Center eventually passed their courses.
The Directed Study Hall, new this year, helps students who have trouble with homework, he said. “The majority of them were recommended by math teachers,” he said.
The school has also brought in Heidi Boyle, a math curriculum and assessment specialist, to work directly with teachers in implementing Common Core and determining ways to help students understand, he said. Also, Professional Learning Teams or PLCs meet regularly to work on curriculum and instruction, he said.
After studying the results of students in Algebra I, Harper said, the school determined to “semesterize” the course rather than have it as a full year.
“If we see students struggling with half the year, they only have to make up half the year,” he explained.
Algebra I is crucial, Harper said, because it’s the foundation for all math that follows it – Geometry, Algebra II and Pre-Calculus.
“It builds on itself,” he said.
Thus far, student math grades are improving, and the emphasis is “going well,” Harper said.
“But it’s going to take time,” he added. Many teachers are used to teaching in the “old” way. “Teachers teach the way they were taught,” Harper said.
He added, “But we have a great faculty, who work incredibly hard. Every one is interested in ensuring student success.”