I despise the idea of being a salesman, with my bread and butter depending on convincing people to buy things they don’t need, but I have to say that there is one product I could sell wholeheartedly: Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Math. This program puts the power of computers into educator’s hands like nothing else. I’ve worked with Accelerated Math intensely for two years now and I’m a believer. It should be in every math classroom, second grade and higher. It does not matter the curriculum or the instructional philosophy, if you teach math, I believe Accelerated Math can improve what you’re doing. Many, if not most, educational applications are conveniences, enabling us to do our work better or faster. Accelerated Math is a revolution on a CD, enabling me to do something that would be otherwise utterly impossible.
Accelerated Math is the ultimate robot T.A.: it produces and grades every assignment, tracking each student’s progress on each of the 150 discrete objectives we need to learn this year. Combining the power of databases and spreadsheets, A.M. takes differentiation to the ultimate level: individualization. Yes, that’s right, a different and individually tailored problem set for each of my 34 math students. Every homework assignment is produced according to what new objectives the student needs to work on and what old objectives he or she needs to review.
At the end of a week, students take a weekly AM quiz. When they pass an objective on that test, they only see it occasionally for review; when they fail it, it appears frequently on their ensuing homework for practice. If they pass five similar problems in a row, they take a daily quiz in class to prove they can do it independently and see it only for review; if they miss five in a row, they don’t see it again until I signal that I’ve given them some extra help. While other kids are working on their daily quiz, I glance at the spreadsheet and can immediately know which five kids to pull and what, precisely, to work on.
What a dream! Top students don’t have to do the same problems ad nauseum, and can move faster than the class, while struggling students avoid absolute frustration and are quickly and specifically flagged for my attention. All the problems sets and quizzes are individualized, making copying a thing of the past, and further assuring that each problem set meets each kid's real needs.
The accountability, for me as well as them, that this computer-driven system offers is intense and powerful. Students know that every assignment is carefully graded and that every problem counts, fostering effort on every problem. The immediate feedback offered by computer grading means they stay invested day after day. For me, the pressure is even greater: I inescapably know how every student is doing on every objective and how they perform on every assignment. I can see instantly what percent of the class has mastered each concept I’ve taught, a constant and forceful reminder that the gap between teaching and learning is mine to bridge. Worst, or best, of all, the program’s symbolic spreadsheet paints student success and struggle in red, greens, golds and blues that cannot be ignored.
Yet I think what I love most about Accelerated Math is that it does not teach my students anything. As far as the students know, all it does is generate and grade their worksheets, spitting out reports on how they did. That is how I like it. I don’t want a computer program that shows my kids a video on fractions and then gives them three practice problems. Good teaching is a deeply interactive activity, with dialogue and discussion that address the multitude of misconceptions and questions that arise in my students’ unique minds. Accelerated Math doesn’t even pretend to supplant my teaching; it only does what a computer can do best: the monotonous task of tracking student achievement objective by objective and the monstrous job of producing individualized worksheets. In doing this, though, it frees me to focus on what I do best, which is not grading and recording or copying worksheets, but teaching, purely teaching.