Optimal Match, a method of individualized teaching created by the Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), has succeeded in its first large-scale test in a public school system. In January, 57 7th- and 8th-graders in Brooklyn's District 22, taught under Optimal Match guidelines, took the New York State Regents I exam, which tests competency in 9th-grade mathematics. All 57 passed the exam, with scores averaging in the 90s.
The Optimal Match method works by diagnosing problems a student has in a subject, then tailoring an individualized approach that allows each one to address those specific problems, rather than material they've already mastered, explains Luciano Corazza, CTY director of academic programs. The strategy thus enables them to move ahead at an accelerated, individualized pace.
In Brooklyn's District 22, approximately 850 middle school students now learn math by this method, according to district superintendent John Comer. "This is how you're supposed to teach children," Comer says. "It's my belief kids can do so much more than we give them credit for."
While the program is aimed primarily at the upper 10-15 percent of academic achievers, Comer notes that his schools have tried the method on kids with learning disabilities, one class per school. He's been impressed with the results there, as well. And in a special program last summer, students of average ability also responded favorably to the method, he says. "The average students made the largest gains," he says. Next year, he wants to institute the program in some elementary schools.
Comer first looked into Optimal Match about five years ago. "We wanted to make sure we were doing education correctly for our children," he says. He brought five staff members to Baltimore to spend the day at CTY, the Hopkins center that recruits talented students, ages 12 to 16, for summer accelerated learning programs at sites around the country. Comer came away impressed with the center's ideas for teaching math. "I'm all for pushing children mathematically," he says. With CTY director William Durden, Comer arranged to train District 22 math teachers in Optimal Match, so they could take the program back home to Brooklyn.
In its summer programs, CTY works with the top .5 percent of student achievers. The Brooklyn program thus represents a significant broadening of CTY's reach.
This is the fourth year District 22 teachers have used Optimal Match, and Comer says 98 percent of the students involved are progressing rapidly through the math curriculum. Some 8th-graders have completed the equivalent of two years of high school math, he says; and there are 7th-graders who will have completed three years of high school math by the time they finish the 8th grade. "Before Optimal Match," says Comer, "no 7th-grade child would have taken 9th-grade math."
"For the teachers, it's a very difficult task," he notes. To use the method, teachers must be flexible and well- organized; in a class of 15 students, they must teach what amounts to 15 different levels of math as they work individually with each student. They also must have sufficient knowledge to keep up with the brightest students, as those students race ahead. "You may have a kid who is off the planet," Comer says.
"Our senior teachers say it's the greatest experience they've had as teachers," he adds. "It's rejuvenated teaching for them."
Such individualized attention is expensive for schools, no less so in New York City, where budget allocations assume a student/teacher ratio of 32-to-1. In Comer's district, which includes 27 schools in Flatbush, Sheepshead Bay, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods (and where students speak 45 different languages), schools have cut back on recreation and other programs in order to hire the additional teachers needed for Optimal Match's 15-to-1 ratio. "This is what parents want," he says.
The students too, it seems. "The kids love it," says Comer. "When you speak to the children about what they like, they say they don't have to be bored while the teacher explains things to the rest of the class. That tells me we should start individualizing instruction in all of our subjects."
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