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How Algebra Is Taught Can Make a Difference

Professor Jon Star partners with Chelmsford Public Schools to implement new approach to teaching Algebra I.

When it comes to teaching Algebra I, Professor Jon Star believes it is not just what students are learning — as far as formulas and equations — but how they are exploring multiple explanations and strategies for solving algebra problems.

“A key piece of this approach is encouraging students that there is more than one way to solve a problem,” says Star. “We are rethinking math teaching and are working with teachers to help them have more conversations with students about the different ways to go about utilizing the principles of algebra to come to the best solution.”

Star’s research on this topic, funded by the National Science Foundation, has led to the development of a new toolkit for math teachers. Over the next three years, Star and his collaborators will provide Chelmsford, Massachusetts, high school and middle school math teachers who volunteer to take part in this study with professional development opportunities and supplemental teaching materials and strategies to guide students toward an approach Star calls Comparison and Explanation of Multiple Strategies, or CEMS.

"The Chelmsford Public Schools is very excited to participate in this project as it is in direct alignment with our Universal Design for Learning initiative, which emphasizes representation, engagement, and expression in lesson planning,” says Linda Hirsch, assistant superintendent of schools.

Matthew Beyranevand, K–12 math and science coordinator at Chelmsford, adds, “We are always looking for new innovative curriculum that encourages students’ exploration of multiple strategies for solving problems.”

Star and collaborators from HGSE and Vanderbilt University will evaluate whether the CEMS toolkit leads to improved student test scores and performance in algebra, and also in how students’ understanding and knowledge of mathematics is developing as a result.

The partnership with Chelmsford builds on Star’s prior work with this approach in schools in the Greater Boston Area.

“We have had great success with this approach in our prior work with Algebra I teachers and students,” Star says. “For teachers, including a focus on comparison and explanation of multiple strategies is a relatively small change in their teaching that seems to have a big impact on students’ success in algebra. And students seem to enjoy the opportunity to explore different ways to solve algebra problems, including discussions about which methods are better and why.”