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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Khan: Students hit the wall in Algebra I if they don't know 3 x 7 = 21

Remote instruction led to disastrous learning losses," especially in math, according to conclusive research, writes Kevin Mahnken on The 74. The October NAEP scores showed 38 percent of eighth graders scored "below proficient" in 2021–22.

Photo: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

"It’s not as if scores went from decent to bad," says Sal Khan, creator of the no-cost Khan Academy site in an interview. "They went from horrible to even more horrible."

If schools return to the pre-pandemic rate of learning, students will start at a lower level and gain about .7 grade levels per year, says Khan. That's why so many college students are placed in what's essentially seventh-grade math. Even "college algebra" is really 10th- or 11th-grade math, says Khan.

(My sister taught remedial English at several community colleges. It was, she said, "eighth-grade English for high school graduates," many of whom failed the course.)

Students need a strong foundation of core skills on which to build, Khan argues. Self-paced "mastery learning" enables students to fill in gaps, he tells Mahnken. "And it’s had something like 200 efficacy studies, all of which were dramatic in terms of what they found for student learning." He also cites "50-plus efficacy studies of Khan Academy."

Students need both "rote learning and memorization" to build fluency, as well as "higher-order skills and problem solving," says Khan.

I visited a school in the Bronx a few months ago, and (eighth graders) were working on exponent properties like: two cubed, to the seventh power. So, you multiply the exponents, and it would be two to 21st power. But the kids would get out the calculator to find out three times seven. They knew what to do, but the fluency gap was adding to the cognitive load, taking more time, and making things much more complex. And if you get to an algebraic equation where you have to get that in several steps — and God forbid someone says you can’t use a calculator because it’s just simple multiplication — it just gets harder and harder.
. . . I just wanted to sit down with them for like 24 hours and make sure they could nail their multiplication tables.

Students who do engineering lessons in project-based learning schools "struggle to get engineering degrees," because they lack fluency in core skills, says Khan.

"It’s a huge problem, and it’s hugely unequal," he concludes. "My kids are doing just fine, and everyone in their school is doing fine. But somebody else’s kid is on the other end of that average, doing pretty darn badly and probably unable to compete."

Khan's new venture is an online school that mixes self-paced learning and group discussions, writes Daniel Mollenkamp on EdSurge.

Khan World School, designed for motivated students, includes daily seminars, small group tutorials and peer tutoring. It's centered on “mastery learning.” It's free to Arizona students thanks to a partnership with a Phoenix charter school, Arizona State University Preparatory Academy, and charges tuition to out-of-state and international students.

"Personalization and individual student mastery must be the centerpiece of an effort to reinvent schools," write Michael Horn and Daniel Curtis on SmartBrief.

Even before the pandemic, for example, research from NWEA showed that the average fifth-grade classroom contained students achieving at seven different grade levels. Roughly two-thirds of students performed below grade level, a quarter were on par and the rest were above.
. . . NWEA data now suggest that the span of levels in any given fifth-grade math classroom has likely widened to nine grade levels.

Students have "far more wide-ranging needs, both academically and emotionally," they write. "Tailoring learning opportunities and support is the only way schools can reach each student."

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