A different take on mastering math
Overachievers like the Khachatryans — who emigrated from Moscow in 1990 with only $700, three suitcases and 50 boxes of books — design a computer-based curriculum to transform the way American children learn math.
The brainchild for the program, so to speak, was the Russian immigrants' young son, who became bored and uninterested in the subject near to the hearts of his mathematician father and petroleum engineering mother.
He made good grades, but seven different Texas schools, both public and private, failed to spark his inner mathematician. An East Coast summer camp finally did the trick.
"Most people can't imagine a 'beautiful proof' or an 'elegant theorem,' but in fact, math — if a good curriculum is used — is full of such things," said George Khachatryan, now a 23-year-old math graduate student at Cambridge University.
Together, the family decided to harness their strengths to create a nonprofit program called Reasoning Mind, designed to get elementary students excited about math.
Based on the Russian curriculum written in the 1930s and '40s, Reasoning Mind has won financial backing from Exxon Mobil and political backing from HISD influentials such as union leader Gayle Fallon and 2007 bond political action committee co-chairman Michael Dee.
An independent evaluation of the program completed in January showed that students who used Reasoning Mind scored 20 to 29 percent higher on an achievement test than students at the same two schools who weren't in the program.
Some promise seen
Students performed at least as well as on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, but the differences in their scores weren't statistically significant, said Robert Houston, one of the evaluators and executive director for the University of Houston's Institute for Urban Education.
Houston said the program is promising.
"It gives students a new way to conceptualize mathematics. That, for me, is much more important than being able to deal with the algorithms of mathematics," he said. "They're exploring the use of technology in learning math and causing students to really think about the quantitative meaning of what they're doing."
Cathy Seeley, a senior fellow at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, said school districts must hold prepackaged curriculums like Reasoning Mind to a high standard. They shouldn't be seduced by computer-based programs, she said.
Work at your own pace
Even with the early indications of success, schools are slow to abandon traditional teaching methods. So far, about 1,800 students in 25 Texas schools use the Reasoning Mind curriculum, which was first piloted in 2003. Unlike other computer-based programs, students use Reasoning Mind every day, not just as a supplemental activity.
"It is sort of a paradigm shift and a leap for a lot of schools to consider that," said Lance Menster, HISD's elementary math curriculum manager.
Unlike a traditional classroom, Reasoning Mind classes allow students to work at their own pace. One child can be practicing subtraction, while another has moved on to fractions. Children don't have to be embarrassed if a certain lesson trips them up and requires more remediation.
Children are forced to master one lesson before they try another.
"The prevailing view in this country is that mathematics is not for everybody," Alex Khachatryan said. "Elementary math is for everyone. Everyone can and should be able to do it. Failure is not an option."
Students earn points for correct answers, which they later trade in for rewards such as T-shirts and backpacks. The points are a great motivator, as is the animated genie that guides the lessons, students say.
"It's a bunch funner," said Samantha Solis, 10.
Minimal costs involved
Because Reasoning Mind is a nonprofit, the costs are fairly minimal for participating schools: $50 to $70 per student and $5,500 for three years of teacher training.
The teacher training is a critical component, Alex Khachatryan said.
"There's no understanding in this country that teaching math requires some really rigorous science," he said. "Everyone seems to think if you know math, you can teach it, and that's just very, very wrong."
Educators at HISD's Burnet Elementary School said they were skeptical when first approached to use Reasoning Mind last year.
"We were very apprehensive. There's just no way of imagining that a computer program could do what a teacher could do," Principal Cynthia Galaviz said.
And, they say, Reasoning Mind doesn't replace a teacher. Rather, it helps them provide individualized instruction to a room of 25 to 30 children.
First-year teacher Amber Feight has become a huge fan. In many ways, she says using the software is more challenging than standing in front of a class — she must be prepared to answer questions from any part of the curriculum at any moment. She must also be able to identify each child's strengths and weaknesses.
The plethora of information generated by the software helps her stay on top of that. It also allows her to print out homework assignments unique to each child's needs.
She said she's already noticed an improvement in students' work ethics and attitudes toward math. "It's a lot of work, but it's completely worth it," Feight said.
For more information, visit www.reasoningmind.org .