The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system is in the midst of a “High School Transformation” project that includes working with partners to design three full years of course work in math, science, and English. In math, the curriculum will include algebra, geometry, and algebra 2.

Through partnerships with technology service providers Carnegie Learning and Agile Mind, the city’s high schools will receive all the tools they need to teach the designed curriculum, including books, software, and student assessments. CPS also has contracted with the two companies to provide an extensive coaching process that will ensure that teachers fully understand what they are teaching and how they should go about teaching it.

The tutors “are not just math coaches,” says Angus Mairs, senior manager for CPS’s High School Transformation project. “They’re actually Agile Mind or Carnegie coaches. They know the test that was given last week, they know the results,” and thus they can offer more targeted instruction for teachers, he says.

Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor software follows student actions within the program to determine a particular student’s strategy in solving a problem. Each action the student takes is associated with one or more skills, which are references to knowledge components within the cognitive model. The performance of individual students in these skills is tracked over time (and displayed to students in the software’s “skillometer”).

Then, the Cognitive Tutor uses each student’s skill profile to pick problems that emphasize the skills on which the student is weakest. When the program determines that all the skills in a section of the curriculum have been mastered sufficiently, the student can move on to the next section of curriculum, which introduces new skills.

Agile Mind works in a similar way, understanding where children need more help and offering them individualized instruction. Agile Mind also has what Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas and director of the Charles A. Dana Center, whose research is the support system on which Agile Minds is based, calls an “empirical engine.” The engine follows the keystrokes of the children using the program and discovers what elements within the program are useful in teaching kids.

“In the old days, you had extremely sophisticated people creating tasks, but nobody captured information on how well they were working,” says Treisman. “The new tools allow the ability to check with each item whether it is useful to kids.”

Treisman notes that, after putting “all these hotshot researchers together to decide what’s going to work and what isn’t,” they often find, through the Agile Mind data, that they were wrong. “Man, is that humbling,” he says.

The Agile Mind program, then, is updated depending on need. That might mean weekly updates, or–for the sake of stability for users–at the end of the semester or school year, depending on the change that is needed.

Technologies such as Cognitive Tutor and Agile Mind enable teachers and students to know very specifically how learning is proceeding. Agile Mind, for example, aggregates data so that teachers can evaluate at a glance–in real time–the performance of individual students and groups of students. This takes the burden of mechanical work off the teacher. It makes student performance, rather than the logistics of whether students have done their work, the central information a teacher receives.

Students, too, can take responsibility for the success of their learning, because they receive detailed information about their progress in real time. For Cognitive Tutor, the cost for CPS was in the range of $30 to $40 per student. For that, the schools get a full set of books, a CD to install the software on the computers, and coaching. While Treisman couldn’t talk specifically about Agile Mind prices, he did say that it is “extremely low cost.” About 400,000 students nationwide are using the online system, he added. Technology-based programs can help increase student learning enormously, but Mairs believes technology’s impact on mathematics should go even further.

“In algebra, a pretty big piece of what’s happening in ninth and tenth grade is they’re learning how to move from a table of numbers to a graph of a curved line,” he explains. “It’s important for kid to be able to do that, and to know what a graph means and what a table means and how you can go from one to another. Scientists do that every day. But if we’re graduating kids who can do all that but who can’t pull out a spreadsheet and whip that out, I’ve left this kid behind.”

–Jennifer Nastu