Florida schools implement algebra help via Facebook

01/25/13 Janelle Irwin
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This morning in Pinellas County, educators and Governor Rick Scott kicked off a new system that lets Florida students get free algebra help while they Facebook. Algebra Nation is a statewide service created for schools by the University of Florida and a private company called Study Edge that interfaces mobile apps and social media.

A simple algebra problem headlined the white smart board in the library at Dixie Hollins High School in Kenneth City. A student solved it and the answer – 52 – was symbolic. That’s the percentage of high school freshman who don’t pass their end of year assessments in algebra 1. Donald Pemberton is the director of the Lastinger Center for Learning and College of Education at the University of Florida. He said teachers came to him and asked for help.

“Number one, they had incredible concerns that almost half of their students were failing to pass the end of course exam in algebra which is a state exam and if you fail to pass that exam, you fail to get credit for the course and then your whole academic progress is stymied.”

Unlike some homework help services, the Algebra Nation program is free for students and to schools. Pemberton said it’s also available 24/7 which works better for high school students who have increasingly unpredictable schedules.

“So, if you’re factoring a polynomial after football practice at 11 o’clock at night and you can’t remember what your teacher taught you that morning, you would have the opportunity to get help then and there.”

Teachers can also use the online tool to improve their curriculum. Governor Rick Scott spoke with a teacher who has a 100% pass rate in her algebra classes. He said even teachers with high success rates can benefit from the extra help.

“She saw that the tool allowed her to see other teaching methods and improved her ability to reach more students. Alicia also said that not all students got the highest grade and although they passed, this tool might help them score higher. She also noted that the same day her students started using the program two students who had never raised their hands in class were very active in the program. It sparked something in these kids who otherwise would have remained silent.”

UF partnered with Study Edge to put the program together. That company specializes in creating online content for college students. Ethan Fieldman is their president and co-founder. He said the project cost UF about $400,000 and it built on tools that were already available.

“We took this platform that works for college students, we adapted it for high school students, we added end of course exam practice tools that look like the end of course exam and we built out better mobile apps and just kind of customized it – actually I could tell you thousands of ways we customized it.”

The program officially launched today, but has been available for students for a couple of weeks. So far about 2,000 students have used it. Erica Hardison teaches Algebra 1 at Dixie Hollins and said her students have responded well to Algebra Nation because it reaches them in ways they are already used to and doesn’t feel like doing homework.

“They know how to use Facebook like the back of their hand. So, they just go on, log in – the wall is kind of like if you guys are – everybody’s familiar with Facebook – but the wall is kind of like the old Facebook wall and they’re posting and as soon as they get on it, they are like, hooked for the most part. I had a student who is an excellent English student – he loves English – but he does not really, he hasn’t found his joy let me say, for mathematics yet. So, I got him to get on it and sign up and now he’s like, ‘did you see my post?’ And he’s posting, he’s helping other students and he’s really starting to explore mathematics.”

The program is modeled after state-implemented testing standards which some educators and parents have criticized. Fieldman, president of Study Edge, defended the process.

“People sometimes say that you’re teaching towards a test. Well, the test is what the state of Florida wants these students to learn – it’s algebra that they want them to learn – so if A equals B and B equals C then A equals C right? So, if the test is what they want to learn and we’re teaching to the test material, well, we’re teaching what’s supposed to be taught. Does that make sense? So, ultimately what we’re trying to do is get the exact content down for these students that they need to know on these tests.”

The launch of Algebra Nation comes two days after Governor Rick Scott announced a proposal to give full time classroom teachers a $2500 raise.

“The reason why we’re able to do this is we’ve turned our economy around. We’ve taken the – we’ve made the tough choices, we’ve reduced regulation, we’ve reduced taxes, we’ve made it a better place for businesses to grow and with that now, our state revenues are growing so we can put more money back into state education.”

But some people are skeptical. Hillsborough Classroom Teacher Association president Jean Clements said the pay increase might not be enough especially after the state legislature and Governor Scott implemented a law that forces teachers to contribute to their own retirement funds.

“So, that $2500 doesn’t go nearly as far for somebody at the top of the schedule. It still is good, but it doesn’t even cover two years – the two years of 3% loss that those teachers have experienced who’ve been here for 20 or 30 years.”

The plan also wouldn’t help teachers’ assistants and other support staff and part time employees – many of whom don’t make a livable wage. When asked about what he planned to do about those employees, Governor Scott didn’t have a specific answer, but hinted that there may be some hope.

“That’s not my entire budget. My entire budget will be coming out. There’ll be additional funds for our education system.”

And even though the Governor’s proposal is awash with skepticism, teachers are still looking forward to the pay bump including one of Dixie Hollins’ math teachers, Erica Hardison.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

The governor’s budget proposal will have to be approved by the legislature. If it is approved, the state will pay an extra $480 million for teachers’ salaries.

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