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Utah makes an $8.5 million bet on tech for math
Math » More than 5,500 students assessed before, during and after they used dozens of learning programs.

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"It gives them the ability to move from concrete to abstract," says Karen Sandberg, a special-education teacher.

All 850 students in the school were involved in the pilot, and still spend two of their five math periods each week in a computer lab, working with the new software. (A third day is also in the lab, working with another software program.)

At a glance

State buying software

Ten software companies will get pieces of the $8.5 million that the 2013 Legislature designated for new math software in Utah’s middle and high schools. The companies were picked by committees of the new STEM Action Center after a pilot project in the fall. Here are the companies, listed with their software names (if different). Those with asterisks were piloted; others were picked because they’ve been successful in other states.

For Sixth-Eighth Grades:

Curriculum Associates (i-Ready)

*Mind Research Inst. (ST Math)


Explore Learning (Reflex)

Compass Learning (Odyssey)


Hot Math (Catchup Math)

For Ninth through 12th Grades:

Carnegie (Cognitive Tutor)


Pearson (MathXL for School)

*The NROC Project (EdReady)

Hot Math (Catchup Math)

More money for STEM

The 2014 Legislature will be asked to put more money into educating Utah’s students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s budget requests $3 million more for the STEM Action Center, created last year as part of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, proposes in SB107 to give school districts $5 million to buy interactive, Web-based programs to teach math in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Urquhart also has said he wants to change math classes in high schools so that more students are ready for college math.

His bill is not yet written, but Urquhart says one goal is to give teenagers an incentive to complete Math 1050 — College Algebra — before they graduate high school. That could take the form of scholarships to Utah institutions of higher education.

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Eighth-grade teacher Brent Larsen likes that self-starter students can go as fast and as far as they like on ALEKS. And he has more time for students who need to be shown that learning can be fun.

At any moment during or after class, he gets a report on his computer screen of the percentage of students who have mastered particular concepts — and who are having trouble. That helps him know which concepts to emphasize when his students are back in the regular classroom.

Katherine Anderson, who teaches seventh- and eighth-graders, says ALEKS is "a great program."

But it has not been easy to give up two periods of teaching each week, she says.

"I’d like more time in the classroom," she says, "to make sure they got the concepts I taught and to practice."

Indeed, Lisa Johnson, the head of Tooele Junior High’s math department, says that’s one of the chief difficulties in using technology.

Teachers are evaluated by how well their students perform on end-of-year tests on the Utah Common Core. So giving up 40 percent of their classroom time to software instruction has been "scary," she says.

Whether it’s worth it, Johnson says, is not yet clear. "I know the kids are learning and filling in holes. All students are moving ahead."

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David Winkler, a math teacher at Dual Immersion Academy, a charter school in Salt Lake City, says his students seem to love ST Math because it’s interactive and gamelike.

It may be hard to isolate the source of improved math scores at the end of the year, he says. "I think overall, it’s helping them."

Adding support for math » Diana Suddreth, the STEM coordinator for grades seven through 12 at the Utah Office of Education, says the new software grants are not the only initiative to improve math education.

It’s increasingly important because students often begin slipping behind in math in middle school. Moreover, the new Utah Common Core demands a more rigorous curriculum than in the past, she says. Some concepts previously taught in ninth grade are now taught in seventh, such as algebra.

To help educators prepare, the state office offers professional-development money to districts and stages a "Core Academy" for teachers in the summers.

The Legislature also appropriated money for a new textbook, Utah Middle School Math, which is being developed by educators from the state’s higher education institutions. It’s being piloted in the Juab, San Juan and Granite districts.

One problem the STEM Center’s pilot has exposed, she says, is the lack of infrastructure in many schools.

At Tooele Junior High, for instance, there were not enough computers for all 850 students to get two more hours a week in a lab. The STEM Center helped connect the school to the company IM Flash, which recently donated 70 refurbished computers and new monitors and keyboards for a second computer lab.

As Suddreth sees it, the STEM Center’s $8.5 million math software project has a twofold value. It helps schools buy technology they otherwise couldn’t afford and does the research to vet programs.

"There are a lot of products out there," she says, "and knowing which one is helpful is really important for teachers."

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