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In Minnesota, new algebra requirements haunting teachers

Battle Lake Elementary math teacher Stacy Lundquist has seen the word "algebra" set off anxious thoughts of unwieldy abstractions among her students.

"Sometimes when they hear 'algebra,' they get really nervous and think, 'I can't do this,' " she said.

The Minnesota Department of Education wants students to start facing these fears sooner - and the recent push for teaching more algebra earlier is making Lundquist and her colleagues across the state slightly anxious, too.

Help arrived this summer in the form of a $3.5 million network of math and science teacher academies. Earlier this month, Lundquist attended four days of training at the new Fergus Falls Math and Science Teacher Center, where she took in teaching strategies alongside 30 fellow area teachers.

The new center will give teachers expert advice, money for classroom technology and emotional support as they tackle the state's bold new math requirements: Starting in 2010, all students will take algebra I in eighth grade and algebra II in high school.

"That's a very, very ambitious program," said Minnesota State University Moorhead professor Tim Harms, one of five math education experts the center enlisted. "There's some concern from teachers that not all students will be ready for algebra in two years."

Helping teachers ease into the new requirements is the priority of the Math and Science Teacher Center, said coordinator Josh Nelson, of the Lakes Country Service Cooperative. The center, which will focus exclusively on math its first year, is a partnership among the state, MSUM, Moorhead's Concordia College and the service cooperative, which matched 50 percent of the $112,000 check from the state.

The Fergus Falls center is one of nine math and science academies the Education Department launched across the state this summer. They scored initial funding of $3 million from the state legislature, with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's blessing, and $500,000 from the National Governors Association.

Teachers' anxiety over the impending raising of the bar came across during the four days of training. Kris Montis, another MSUM center expert, said the most common question from teachers was, "How do we get it all in?"

Harms said teachers worry about facing a time crunch in switching to the new requirements. According to the latest data from the nonprofit Achieve, about 30 percent of Minnesota eighth-graders took algebra in 2005. The same year, only two states in the country required Algebra II, so far the provenance of college-bound overachievers, for graduation. By 2008, the number jumped to 19.

"Time is an issue because you have so many pressures," Lundquist said. "All of a sudden the focus is math, math, math."

The newly stringent math requirements in Minnesota and other states stem from a sense that young people in countries such as India and China are outpacing American peers on the global market for coveted high-tech jobs.

At the training, teachers discussed strategies to sneak algebraic concepts into earlier grades. They discussed visual aides and technology that make abstract ideas more concrete. Through the school year, the center's experts will field phone and e-mail inquiries from area math teachers. In addition, the organizers grouped attendees in so-called professional learning communities, small teams of teachers who will exchange ideas across districts.

Arick Follingstad, a new high school math teacher at the tiny Campbell-Tintah district, will stay in touch with several experienced educators from larger districts. They plan to brainstorm motivation tactics: "In math, sometimes that's the biggest struggle - getting kids to be motivated, to be there. Being able to bounce ideas off of other teachers will be great."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529