When mathematician Alex Khachatryan and his wife, a petroleum engineer, fled to the United States from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, they enrolled their son in public school, where they were soon troubled by the lack of rigor in his math class.
“They loved everything they found in America, except math education,” said James Talarico, Central Texas executive director of Reasoning Mind, a Houston-based math software company.
Khachatryan was working on artificial intelligence research at Texas A&M University, and wondered if he could find a way to apply that technology to math instruction, bringing the most innovative and effective teaching to every student via simulation and freeing teachers to do more high-touch instruction.
He didn’t want to invent new curriculum as much as he wanted to deliver the best in the world.
“He is embracing what he believes has worked for many years,” said Michael Burke, founder of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum and an active proponent of Reasoning Mind.
“Blended learning” like this is scary in the education world. People imagine children chained to computers for eight hours per day, with teachers reduced to managing licenses and troubleshooting IT problems. They picture students zoned out in front of screens while an “educational” video delivers a few nuggets of low-quality instruction and an activity with little more value than what they get at home on a game console.
Since it was founded in 2006, Reasoning Mind has been proving that the blended learning experience can look quite different.
Betsy Barrera’s second grade classroom at Stonewall-Flanders Elementary School (Harlandale Independent School District) resembles the inside of an ant hill or a beehive. During math the students are quietly and industriously working, each on their own computer. Every screen is different, and students lean over and whisper to each other, pointing at the screen, and then down at their orderly notebooks, which are filled with graphs and long form solutions to equations.
A child stands up, and rings a bell to signal that he’s scored a 100% on a “notes test” using the software. The class applauds, and everyone goes back to work.
Barrera herself is working with four children using hands on tools, talking through an algebraic concept. They have visual aids to help them, and Barrera makes lots of eye contact with each.
“It’s just magnificent,” she said.
Reasoning Mind software frees her to do what she loves – teach. Without Reasoning Mind, she said she would have a hard time finding the time to deliver the one-on-one or small group instruction tailored to students’ particular progress, what is called “differentiation.”
Harlandale ISD’s population is 88% economically disadvantaged. In districts like this, students fall behind for many reasons, and teachers spend a lot of time triaging performance issues. Differentiation is crucial. Meanwhile, students who could be advancing are getting bored, and there’s no way for a teacher to work with as many small groups or one-on-one’s as he or she would like.
Reasoning Mind uses an interactive tool to deliver whole class instruction. Students go at their own pace, answering questions and solving problem sets along the way. Student performance is automatically tracked in a grade sheet on the teacher’s computer. She can click on the assignment and see which problems the student missed, and pull them aside with other students who struggled with the same concept.
While students go at different paces, at this point in early May, all of Barrera’s students have completed the second grade curriculum, with the exception of one student who joined the class in the late spring. They will spend the rest of the school year working on the third grade curriculum.
Reasoning Mind was designed for Texas classrooms, so it aligns with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) which are used as a sort of quality control measure. For students to progress in the Reasoning Mind program, they must have mastered all TEKS for their grade level.
An account manager provides multiple support services to teachers, in addition to their initial software training, to ensure that they can fully utilize the program.
Far from a classroom full of isolated screen zombies, the children are interacting efficiently, helping each other and getting back to their own progress. The software offers ample resources for students to dig deeper into concepts and enrich their own learning.
Independent studies confirmed that Reasoning Mind engaged students throughout the entire class more effectively than traditional whole-class instruction. The attention gains measured in one study amount to almost an entire summer’s worth of class time.
At home, students with internet can log on to their account to do homework, but worksheets can be printed at the end of the day for students without internet access.
As harmonious as this all seems, Talarico explained that it is meaningless unless it produces results. Children have to learn, as well as enjoy their math skills, and teachers and schools are still beholden to STAAR performance.
In Dallas ISD, Reasoning Mind’s largest partner, STAAR math scores for fourth graders improved drastically in the years that Reasoning Mind was implemented. The longer the students had been exposed to the curriculum, the more their scores improved. The same happened in Houston ISD. IDEA Public Schools uses the program as well, as part of their high-performing program.
Programs that require each child to have their own screen may seem cost prohibitive. While some schools do outfit entire classrooms with PCs, others use tablets or a universal computer lab to administer the software. Talarico estimated that the cost per student had been at $88, but now, with so many variables from school to school, it’s not possible to peg a consistent price. Plus, the more they expand, the lower the per student price goes.
Because of the strong teacher training component, some ISDs have used professional development dollars on the curriculum. Reasoning Mind is also the only blended learning math curriculum written into the Texas Education Agency (TEA) budget as a specific line item. Districts looking to start using Reasoning Mind can have their startup fees differed as a “free trial” through TEA.
Burke saw the statewide results and became a strong advocate for Reasoning Mind in San Antonio. He hopes that more districts will sign on to see much needed improvements in math instruction.
“There is very important pedagogy at the basis of the curriculum,” Burke said.
Right now, grades 2-7 are online, with pre-k-1 scheduled for next year. Each grade level is very labor intensive, explained Talarico. Because it is built by mathematicians, the period of scrutinizing or “fussing” over each element can go on for a long time, in pursuit of perfection. The end result, however, is an extremely high-quality product, as verified by some of the country’s most respected research and consulting institutions including Deloitte and SRI International.
The most telling statistic is the high level of teacher and student satisfaction. For an educational innovation to win approval from teachers, administrators, and the TEA is a rare thing in our political climate.
However, if every teacher is smiling as broadly about Reasoning Mind as Barrera, and test scores everywhere can improve as they have in Houston and Dallas, Reasoning Mind may have a large role to play in the future of Texas education.
Top image: Betsy Barerra works with students in small groups to help them master content as part of the Reasoning Mind curriculum at Stonewall-Flanders Elementary School. Photo by Bekah McNeel