Pa. Middle School Implements Computer-Assisted Math Lab

Central East Middle School in Philadelphia, Pa., is committed to helping every student gain admission to a high school program that will best prepare him or her for college. Some years ago, administrators realized that traditional instructional techniques failed to provide many kids with a solid foundation in mathematics.

Since the fall of 1995, the school has followed a unique ìtalent-development modelî designed to expose all students to a core curriculum emphasizing higher-order competencies. The model calls for the use of technology and extended class periods to achieve these competencies.

Getting an "Extra Dose"

With principal funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the Carnegie Foundation, Central East Middle School introduced an ìextra-doseî course for students falling behind their peers in math. Dubbed Computer and Team-Assisted Mathematics Acceleration (CATAMA), the course relies heavily upon practical problem-solving applications.

What makes CATAMA different from other math courses is that students receive a significant portion of their instruction by computer. While still attending their normal math course, participants meet in the lab every day for ten weeks at a time, temporarily skipping one of their elective classes.

Placement tests assess exactly what each student knows, then he or she is assigned a partner who needs the same lessons. Situated next to each other, two groups of partners form a cooperative learning team.

Every one of the labís ten computers contains a copy of SkillsBank 3, basic skills software from SkillsBank Corp. (Baltimore, Md.). The comprehensive package features 90 regular lessons in math computation, word problems, geometry and algebra.

Each lesson first reviews a single, well-defined concept with onscreen examples. In the CATAMA lab, partners must take turns answering 8 to 10 randomly selected questions on the given concept. If someone answers a question incorrectly, SkillsBank 3 provides a complete explanation.

Quizzes and End-of-Section Tests assess an individualís mastery of the material. Teams receive awards based on the progress of all members, preventing one ìleaderî from doing all the work.

Limited Only by Effort

One educator involved with the CATAMA course says its cooperative learning approach lets students quickly ìcatch upî to their peers by gaining a deep understanding of key math concepts. ìThe only limiting factor is their effort,î notes Dr. Douglas MacIver, associate director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

MacIver and other researchers at Johns Hopkins have been carefully studying the new instructional model at Central East Middle School to determine its effectiveness. Although a detailed analysis remains to be done, MacIver says heís ìvery pleased with what the aggregate data looks like.î

For example, eighth graders enrolled in CATAMA scored higher on standardized math tests than their counterparts at six comparison sites in Philadelphia with similar demographic profiles. ìThereís so much in the regular classroom to slow down the pace [of learning],î notes MacIver.

In the CATAMA lab, the teacher acts like a coach, going from team to team to observe progress. If appropriate, the teacher will pull together kids from different teams who need help on a particular concept. Occasionally, the teacher presents a lesson to the entire class at the beginning or end of the period.

"The computers don't replace the teacher," says MacIver. "Instead, they free her to provide targeted help to kids."

Starts From Ground Zero

MacIver commends SkillsBank 3 for its breadth and flexibility. ìIt takes you from ground zero up through geometry and algebra,î he says, noting that the lessons follow a step-by-step thinking process such as comparison, prediction and decision making.

According to MacIver, students have responded very enthusiastically to their ìextra doseî math classes. Only 2% of those surveyed said they would have rather stayed in their elective during that period.

If subsequent studies prove that the CATAMA lab markedly improves test scores, MacIver hopes to replicate the model at other schools in the region, then push for national implementation.

"This is something that any school in America can do. In this day and age, pulling ten computers together is not that daunting a task."

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.