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COLUMNIST: Building academic excellence-on a tight budget

Answer me this: "The average salt content on a certain type of potato chip should be 2 mg. with a standard deviation of .1 mg. An inspector measures the salt content by taking a sample of 50 chips from each batch. The inspector REJECTS the entire batch if the average salt content is significantly different from 2 mg at the 5% significance level. Explain what a Type I error would mean in this setting and find the probability of making a Type I error." (Note: this is an actual question from one of our high school math classes.)

If you were an elementary student in the late sixties, you may remember "timed tests". As I recall, we had two minutes to answer a page full of math facts. If we got them mostly right, we were rewarded with a page full of tougher problems the next week. I remember the terror of the clock as it "tick-tocked" its way to the end. To this day, I cannot watch final Jeopardy without being back in that classroom. A beautiful thing about timed tests was the teacher; she took out all the shame of a low score. She worked with us to know our math facts on demand, yet there were over 30 in my class. I think some students were left behind.

Mathematics is a new literacy. A strong K-8 mathematics foundation is necessary for achievement in algebra; algebra is the "gateway" class for gaining entry into many quality careers and almost all technical and liberal arts colleges. Most importantly, every child is capable of learning algebra. In fact, we teach algebra to all in 8th and 9th grade.

This is a significant statement: all students shall learn algebra. Recently someone said, "Nothing has changed in education in the last hundred years." Anyone who says that with a straight face hasn't visited one of our high school classes lately, nor have they worked out the answer to the salty chip problem. As a matter of fact, huge changes have taken place. The single most exciting change is high expectations for all students. Not some students - all students.

Schools not so long ago were places that sifted and sorted students into the bright, the average, and the rest. We have come to know the bell curve is not statistically true about student potential, given a manageable class size, a high quality teacher, and students with a work ethic. An added bonus is parents who may not be able to do the math themselves if they weren't taught it yet insist that their children learn it. Why? Because children can - and because they are, all over the globe. That strong math foundation opens doors to careers of choice. Today we use NWEA software to pinpoint exactly where children get lost in the learning. We then intervene, help the student develop a construct for understanding the concept, and get that learner back on track with his or her peers. This is exciting stuff, making us better educators as measured by student achievement of all students. Not some students. All students.

As the levy is discussed, it is important to remember that its passage will protect manageable class sizes. Without it, class sizes will jump. Inside that crowded classroom, the ability to diagnose and intervene is reduced. And those who are lost on a little thing stay lost on most everything that comes next.

Perham - Dent built academic excellence in a competitive environment with far fewer dollars per pupil than area schools have been given. We simply can no longer do it. A levy is needed to protect, among other things, class size and student achievement in many areas, including mathematics.