Planting SEEDs of hope
It's an early Tuesday afternoon at Barbara Jordan Elementary School in South Oak Cliff, and Chet Baker, a tall and cheerful visitor dressed in a dark gray suit, takes off his jacket and makes this straightforward inquiry to Jeff Sughrue's third-grade class: "What signal would you show if today is Tuesday?"
Piece of cake. All 20 children put their arms straight up in the air, as if signaling a touchdown, to indicate it's true.
Baker nods approval, then asks: "What signal would you show me if I told you today is January 15, 1892?" The children wave their arms as if signaling a baseball runner is safe, meaning it's false.
But Baker, who has an easygoing yet firm manner with the children, is just getting started. In fact, he and the young students are about to venture into territory where few third-grade classes dare to tread: the land of algebra, a zone usually restricted to teenagers.
Unbelievably, the kids are going to eat it up.
He puts the equation " = 15" on the board. What numbers, he asks, can (delta) and (omega) represent? One girl raises her hand to answer three and five. Baker writes those answers on the board. Another child offers the number five and the variable Ix, which in algebra is a fancy way of saying "one." With a felt-tipped marker, Baker writes:
5 Ix = 15
Immediately, the children begin rapidly crossing their arms in disapproval. Baker doesn't dismiss the girl's answer as wrong, but gently asks the class what Ix stands for. "One," they answer, so five times Ix equals five. Baker then calls on Mesha, another student who offers the number 15 and I+ as answers.
Again, about half of the children begin crossing their arms, so Baker asks Mesha to ask a classmate what she thinks. "My colleague, why do you disagree?" Mesha asks Samara, who sits on the other side of the room. (The children use special formalities to talk with one another in the program.)
"I-sub-plus," replies Samara, "acts like a zero." And she is right.
Huh? I-sub-what? In the back of the room, a 25-year-old writer falls behind the class of third-graders as his comprehension falters.
Baker's questions get harder. "What can I multiply three by to get Ix?" he asks. A student gives the answer of negative three. The kids wildly cross their arms. A student gives the correct answer of 1/3.
And so Chet Baker has taught the 9-year-old students of Jeff Sughrue's class how to determine a "multiplicative inverse." To reinforce the lesson, Baker writes this equation on the board: "1/15 __ = Juan".
The children scratch their heads for a moment. A boy with a name card on his desk that reads "Juan" looks similarly perplexed.
Sitting in back of the room, William Glee, a colleague of Baker's who also teaches advanced math, crosses his arms back and forth and chuckles. He's the only one who gets the joke. "You can't put Juan up there," says Glee. "Juan is a student!"
The children all laugh.Locally, SEED was introduced in 1982 to city schools at the urging of Texas Instruments executive Ralph Dosher Jr., who was distressed by the fact that more than 90 percent of graduates in Texas had not taken a math course past ninth grade. He allowed staffers of the Dallas-based company to take time off from work to teach SEED classes in some of Dallas' poorest schools.
Texas Instruments no longer supports SEED financially (once SEED was stabilized, the company moved on to other initiatives), but a handful of former TI staffers still work in the program. For their part, Dallas school officials say they are still committed to the program, which is Project SEED's largest chapter nationally. As part of his administration's "New Millennium" plans to improve classroom instruction, Superintendent Rojas wants to expand SEED to allow 10,278 students to participate.
Over the years, DISD's William Webster, deputy superintendent for evaluation and information systems under Rojas, has completed several major evaluations of the program. In 1992, his first study collected records from 10,890 students (SEED and non-SEED) between 1982 and 1991 at 11 Dallas elementary centers. Generally, the study found that the longer a student is enrolled in SEED, the better that student performed compared with non-SEED peers on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and pre-TAAS state tests. Follow-up studies by Webster in later years found that SEED students kept their test-score edge in math as well as reading even after leaving the program.
Moreover, they were more likely than non-SEEDlings to enroll in advanced mathematics classes in high school and less likely to repeat a grade (an event that increases a student's likelihood of dropping out).
Nationally, SEED was conceived in 1963, when William Johntz, a mathematician, psychologist, and high school teacher in Berkeley, California, decided to spend his lunch hour teaching advanced algebra to sixth-grade students at a nearby public school in a troubled urban area. His belief: Younger children needed challenges, rather than traditional, less-challenging remedial work, to have a shot at changing their fate.
Children were unlikely to do well on material they had already failed, he surmised, while kids in high school were "pretty well tracked in terms of what they are going to do" with their lives and could not be helped as easily. With funding from the University of California at Berkeley and the Berkeley School District, Johntz launched Project SEED with the hope of reaching young students and giving them a taste of success while they were still curious and not discouraged about their abilities. (The acronym SEED used to stand for Special Elementary Education for the Disadvantaged, but the wording was later dropped when the meaning of the word "special" changed during the 1970s to mean "disabled.")
Striking a note with the era's Civil Rights Movement, Johntz also theorized that teaching methods and language used successfully with white middle-class children constituted a stumbling block for inner-city minority kids. As a 1970 Newsweek write-up puts it: "[Johntz] reasoned that if language skills, with their forbidding overtones of white culture, were a stumbling block, then math, which is culturally neutral, might be the right place to start."
So abstract, conceptually oriented mathematics, he believed, was the way to go, rather than "culture-bound," verbally oriented math lessons. Likewise, SEED's current leaders also argue that higher-level math is the right topic for stimulating a desire to learn among minority youths, as it incorporates fewer of the cultural biases found in history, English, and other subjects.
Eventually, Johntz's experimental program spread to as many as 17 school systems in 12 states, reaching from Nome, Alaska, to New Haven, Connecticut, and employing more than 200 teachers. In the mid-'70s, Sen. Ted Kennedy introduced it to Congress by holding a demonstration lesson on the floor of the U.S. Senate, later winning federal funding specifically for the program.
But the program hit a rough patch in the early 1980s when President Ronald Reagan scotched much of its federal funding in 1981 as part of a larger shearing of government spending, causing the program to contract significantly and recede from public memory. By 1987, SEED survived only in the San Francisco Bay area; in Portland, Oregon; and in Dallas, where administrators would pay its full costs.
Today, however, the program is making a steady comeback in Dallas and six other chapters in Detroit, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Camden, New Jersey. Together, Glee says, the program's seven chapters reach 10,000 to 12,000 students, while Fort Worth and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, are weighing whether to sign up.
For the future, SEED wants to get back its federal funding, says Hamid Ebrahimi, but he admits prospects look dim for now, since Republicans in the GOP-majority Congress frown on the idea of enlarging the federal role in education. But Ebrahimi thinks SEED will grow anyhow and hopes it will expand to other cities in Texas. "We want to maintain the quality of the program," he says. "We've built it to a point we are now at a critical mass where we can build it much bigger than before."
Supporters praise Bill Rojas, who worked with Project SEED as leader of San Francisco schools, for continuing the program, realizing that a new chief could just as easily have put SEED's $1.7 million budget to other uses. "If it wasn't for him, the program wouldn't be here," Ebrahimi says. "There was no leadership, and we needed someone to come in and provide that."
Following the teachers' workshop, Glee and the visitor go to a nearby conference room to talk, but several SEED instructors crash the discussion to expound their love for the program. Somehow, a fast-paced math lesson on exponents starts right on the spot when instructor and local recruitment coordinator Kevin O'Neill, who teaches SEED classes to fifth-graders, grabs a felt-tip pen and begins writing on a nearby board. He writes:
64x 64x = 641
What exponents are represented by x? he asks. Remembering a long-lost math lesson to add exponents in a multiplication problem, the visitor guesses both numbers are multiplied by the 1/2 power. So O'Neill asks the visitor what 64 to the 1/2 power is.
Uncertain, the visitor makes a haphazard guess: "32," he says.
"Good deliberative effort," O'Neill says, allowing the visitor to think he's right for about half a minute. O'Neill then fills in the blanks of the problem so it reads "32 32 = 64." In a SEED class, he explains, the students would then immediately know that 32 times 32 doesn't equal 64 and cross their arms to signal the error. The visitor quickly realizes his faux pas and corrects himself: 64 to the 1/2 power equals eight, so therefore, "8 8 = 64."
Thus, O'Neill illustrates SEED's biggest feature separating it from conventional math instruction. Through the Socratic teaching style, the visitor who gave a wrong answer is allowed to work through the problem and arrive at the right answer -- and feel better about his math talents than if O'Neill merely dismissed him as wrong right off the bat.
"Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong, but I'm going to put my hand up," O'Neill explains. "You model to them that it's OK to conjecture. I can hardly say the word 'wrong.'"
What else are SEED instructors modeling for the kids? That it's OK to love learning, that education shouldn't be something done to children, as if force-feeding them vinegar. One can only imagine the result if Project SEED's spirit and vitality were infused into every subject taught in schools.
So the question is simple: When does Project SEED plan to shed the word "project" from its name and become an integral part of the educational system that reaches a far larger number of children, rather than an add-on component? Upstairs in SEED headquarters, Chet Baker responds to this question with a laugh.
"Are you prepared to write a check?" he asks.
What is going on here? Who is this Baker fellow, and why is he teaching algebra to third-grade students at a Dallas public school? Who let him in the building?
And what explains the sheer enjoyment the children exude in solving tricky equations with Greek letters in them? Don't most people kvetch about their algebra classes for most of their adult lives? Even talking Barbie dolls have been known to complain that "math is hard," while a Jimmy Buffett song is titled (and purposely misspelled) "Math Suks."
Baker wants to nip such fears in the bud and thinks he can do it by reaching kids while they're young and confident. A former corporate mathematician turned teacher, he visits Jeff Sughrue's afternoon class and three other classes four days a week to teach algebra and other higher-math concepts. His visits, which will continue nearly until summer break, are part of a long-running district-sponsored academic-enrichment program.
Again, it boggles the mind. After all, a large-scale effort kicked off in 1997 to improve reading at the Dallas Independent School District has not yet shown results, and the district is not known as a cauldron of innovation.
But it's really happening and has been for some time with apparent success -- albeit on a limited scale, a mere glimmer of its promise. Since 1982, Dallas has hosted Project SEED, a multi-city initiative born in the 1960s that seeks to improve math education for poor and minority children by using innovative techniques to teach the harder stuff young. About 6,000 Dallas elementary schoolchildren every year out of 100,000 across the district receive lively tutorials in algebra, calculus, analysis, and other facets of advanced math during regular school hours through the program. Citing research linking the program to higher levels of student achievement and increased enrollment in tougher courses, DISD Superintendent Bill Rojas has announced tentative plans to expand the $1.7 million program next year to serve about 10,000 students.
Is it the program's method or the extra resources that explains Project SEED's success? To some extent, this seems a chicken-and-egg argument, but it's evident that SEED instructors deploy techniques to engage children in learning math that are rare for American classrooms. The kids in Sughrue's class this afternoon are not classified as "gifted and talented." They are a regular, heterogeneous class of children not sliced and diced by ability labels. Directors of the Dallas-based Project SEED encourage teachers to allow many special-education children, the presumably "slow" learners, to be present in the room for SEED lessons since regular curricula often neglect their skills.
While Barbara Jordan in South Oak Cliff is one of many overcrowded schools in DISD -- 15 portable trailers sit outside, and the narrow hallways fill quickly between classes -- it's a well-kept building, and the children exude happiness and spirit. The same is true for their highly motivated instructors, who often gush with youthful, infectious enthusiasm when teaching kids tough math problems. Perhaps that's why the program constitutes a rare success for the beleaguered DISD.
Their session, held in an upstairs classroom, mimicked the scene in Sughrue's class -- on a taller scale. When SEED instructors leave the classrooms, they don't step out of character. Instructors even report making the hand signals in front of family members and friends before catching their slip-ups.
As Harold Bledsoe, a SEED instructor and the program's curriculum coordinator, leads his colleagues through calculus-style summation problems, the instructors, sitting in desks lined up in straight rows, behave as their young students do. They use the hand signs to signal agreement or disagreement, holding up fingers to show their answers, and rolling their arms to telegraph their support of their colleagues.
The diverse lot of teachers, who vary tremendously in age, race, sex, and ethnicity, make about the same annual salaries as Dallas public school teachers, who average $33,000. Despite their ability to easily obtain much higher-paying jobs in the private sector, they stay in the program because they believe they are making a difference and helping children.
The daily workshops allow SEED teachers to share ideas and help them learn math concepts inside out so they can follow any train of thought that free-flowing Socratic questioning may produce. After a bewildering math lesson that left a visitor feeling confused and empty-headed, Bledsoe and Glee allowed the SEED specialists, most of whom have advanced degrees in mathematics, science, or engineering, to recount their reasons why they signed up for the program.
Glee allows a visitor to call on "students" with raised hands, a strange prospect when the "students" range in age from late 20s to near retirement age.
Some of the instructors literally squirm in their seats, practically unable to wait for a turn to speak. Ann Meuret, who taught remedial math in San Antonio public schools, says she was amazed by SEED's willingness to teach advanced math to young students in troubled schools. "That was the exact opposite of what we were doing," she says. "I'd heard some of it in college in theory, but never saw it in practice."
She was also surprised by the depth of the children's curiosity and willingness to learn. "The kids go 'oooo' when they get it," she says.
Nearby is John Davis, a former engineer who worked for a Louisiana oil company but was downsized after a 20-year career. "I happen to be one of the fortunate ones who was let go," he says, becoming teary-eyed when he talks about his new job. "I had reached all of my goals in my career except one: to give back to the community," he says as other instructors roll their arms in support. "It's not only uplifting, but it gives me a sense of pride for my generation."
Yet the very idea of third-graders studying basic algebra, a subject usually delayed until middle or high school, seems alien.
It seems odder still in a school where nearly all the children, mostly from low-income Hispanic and African-American families, qualify for federally supported free lunches -- the usual yardstick for poverty -- and thus are labeled "at-risk," with all of its deflating assumptions: low test scores, lagging academic knowledge, and dim career prospects. The general assumption is that these kids should focus on the basics -- anything else is just a fanciful diversion from more pressing academic needs.
SEED's local stable of about 40 mathematicians, scientists, and engineers are resolute in their conviction that even children from hard-luck backgrounds can learn challenging material and develop critical-thinking skills. "By bringing the variables in early, the kids have no fear of it," says Glee, who has taught in the program since 1982.
"The biggest barrier," says Chet Baker, "is the expectations of the educators."
Low expectations are shattered when instructors see their children tackling tough math problems in SEED classes. "You can see you are changing teachers' attitudes on how they view their kids," says Bledsoe, who left engineering work in Silicon Valley to join the program. "That kind of daily gratification you don't get at most jobs."
Teachers, who must juggle a plethora of tasks and responsibilities, are largely grateful for the help from math specialists, though when SEED instructors were first assigned to his classes last year, Jeff Sughrue admits, he was a skeptic.
"My first thought was that it was going to be over the kids' heads and it didn't serve a purpose," he says. But now Sughrue uses the SEED hand signals and integrates more challenging concepts like variables in regular math lessons.
Harold Morrison, principal of Barbara Jordan Elementary, also is a fan. When he taught at Pearl C. Anderson Learning Center in South Dallas, Glee came to his class to teach SEED's brand of accelerated math. Ever since then he has been a convert. "It's, 'You're doing algebraic equations. Now, who said you were dumb?'" Morrison says. "The kids are very receptive. They can do a lot more than we give them credit for."
SEED's officers point to a substantial amount of research, much of it conducted in Dallas, that they say highlights their program's strong and long track record. Studies in Dallas found rises in test scores and an increased likelihood of enrollment and success in higher math courses later in school with SEED participation. "I've had principals tell me, 'I can always tell a Project SEED student by the way they walk,'" says Glee, the program's director.
The program has gained support from elected leaders as well. "The first time I attended a classroom, I was amazed these kids were doing algebra and exponents," says Hollis Brashear, a member of the Dallas school board of trustees. "It's always amazing to see young boys and girls solve problems quickly. And it's amazing how it improves their vocabulary. They're using words like congruent, parallel, and adjacent."
Backers say Project SEED is a promising way to teach minority children, and the methods of instruction it employs may be especially attuned to black culture. William Tate, DISD's new scholar in residence and a math-education professor on leave from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cites a 1994 California study that praised SEED for incorporating features "common to African-American culture such as audience participation, choral responses, cooperation, collective responsibility for problem solving, flexibility, and strong adult leadership."
Certainly, singling out characteristics of any one group is a tricky proposition. But Brashear, who is black, agrees that SEED plays to the strengths of black children. "We're a very expressive people, especially our boys," Brashear says. "Go to our churches. You see people expressing themselves. We do it in music and entertainment."
The point, Brashear says, is that "many times, African-American students have been told math is very difficult. Project SEED enables them to overcome that fear that math is hard."
Debate over SEED's merits spills into the new and growing field of "ethnomathematics," which challenges the permeation of "Eurocentrism" in mathematics education, an influence some claim harms students from non-European cultures. Although he considers himself first and foremost an education-policy expert, Tate has written scholarly articles calling for math curricula to reflect the "thinking and experience of African-American students."
These days, going too far down the road of attuning educational practices to cultural behaviors can leave one open to charges of unfair stereotyping, cultural stigmatization, and the like. Witness the "ebonics" fiasco in Oakland, California, three years ago. Project SEED sidesteps such salvos because of its higher-level math focus and track record. "Project SEED is in a fortunate situation," Tate says, "because it has statistical data to support its effectiveness, and you can't argue with that."
Moreover, backers say, it's not just black children who benefit from SEED methods. Students pegged as "slow" by teachers are often quick to grasp the conceptual reasoning behind complicated math problems, even if they are rusty on the mechanics of seemingly less difficult math topics such as multiplication and division.
And the program helps students with a limited grasp of English since math ability, and not English fluency, is crucial. "A Hispanic kid [with a limited grasp of English] may not know the language," Glee says, "but if you put up the numbers and the concepts, they get it right." He says he's seen children stimulated by SEED's high-energy approach go from shy and quiet to boisterous, with larger English vocabularies to boot.
Here's how SEED works: The lessons don't take the place of regular math lessons, but complement them, weaving advanced concepts such as exponents and summations into basic math topics that students have already studied, such as fractions and division. SEED instructors don't lecture, but use a teaching style known as the Socratic method of instruction, in which they teach the material by asking question after question, thus facilitating discussion.
The instructors, say program leaders, phrase their queries with precision to nudge students in the right direction. For the most part, however, they let students figure it out for themselves one step at a time, using choral responses and hand signals to keep the whole class involved while measuring individual students' level of understanding.
The hand signals also serve as a classroom-management tool, instructors say, by giving students an outlet to respond frequently and eagerly and helping build the confidence of quiet students. "It's meant to be nonthreatening and fun," Baker says.
A key feature of the project is its use of trained mathematicians, says Hamid Ebrahimi, Project SEED's national director and chief executive officer. "Regular elementary teachers, due to no fault of their own, are not exposed to higher math," Ebrahimi says. Rather, he says, they are trained as generalists and may take only one or two math courses in college.
After some initial suspicion, he adds, most teachers welcome the SEED instructors and learn new techniques and material through watching them teach. Cooperation between the two teachers is crucial, as children are quick to pick up on any negative static. "We're not there to take their place and lift ourselves up above [regular teachers]," Glee says. "We're there to roll up our sleeves and help children."
Ultimately, Project SEED isn't about higher math or algorithms, backers say, but building and reinforcing students' confidence at a crucial age.
"Mathematics is a tool we use to get students to think," Glee says. "Unfortunately, math is a subject where kids say math is hard and have a tendency to shy away. But it's a lot easier to teach math to 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds than to 15-year-olds because a lot of the older students have already developed an opinion about themselves."
While the term "critical thinking" has fallen out of favor in educational circles in recent years, Project SEED constitutes a rare and unabashed bastion of old-style "progressive" philosophy in education, which prizes deep thought over the "rote learning" and memorization of facts in preparation for standardized tests.
While much progressive ideology in education, championed by educator and philosopher John Dewey in the early 1900s, has been rightly or wrongly dismissed as fluff, SEED rises above the fuss by virtue of its sheer differentness. The program regularly receives accolades from the U.S. Education Department, while Republicans in Congress often call on Ebrahimi to testify on programs that help low-income children.
"Much of teaching is toward the answer, not the process," says Glee, voicing a belief that many policymakers today consider heresy when applied to regular academics. "But the journey is more important than the destination."
Like other teachers, many SEED instructors worry that children will encounter unneeded roadblocks on that journey. On the trip from Barbara Jordan Elementary School to downtown Dallas after Chet Baker teaches algebra to Jeff Sughrue's class, a discussion with William Glee about Project SEED turns to topics of religion and politics.
Next to the driver's seat in his white minivan, Glee keeps a box full of cassettes embossed with titles such as "The Liberated Christian: Freedom Through Your Identity in Christ." They are impassioned sermons by Anthony Evans, pastor of the nondenominational Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, which he listens to while driving to work. They get him in the right frame of mind.
Glee, who is deeply religious, says he needs the exhortation to mentally prepare every day for the job he believes God has chosen for him: supervising SEED's operations and teaching advanced math to elementary school students in some of Dallas' poorest neighborhoods. He sees himself as a missionary, even if he's not preaching the Gospel.
"There are forces out there that are trying to keep our kids from being successful," Glee says. "I'm there to shine a light so these kids can follow me."
Glee also says he's proud to serve as a role model for boys, especially black boys, since few men teach in elementary schools and many urban children live in single-parent homes. "We're also a role model when they see how diverse our staff is and how well we interact with each other," says Glee, who is black.
One facet of Project SEED is that it works inside the school system to improve learning, yet in many ways challenges the so-called "system" through its unique style and attempts to raise teachers' expectations of children. As quasi-outsiders, SEED staffers don't hesitate to criticize "the system," even if they don't name names.
"We're doing kids a disservice by not preparing kids for the future, but for the TAAS [the state's standardized test]," said Glee, on a day when SEED classes were canceled so children could drill for the Stanford Nine, another standardized test used by DISD. "If a kid can't pass the test, that kid is seen as a bad kid," he continues. "But a lot of the kids who can't pass the test end up running big corporations. There's no reward or praise for kids who think out of the box."
Glee worries about declining opportunity for children who fail to learn highly specialized skills in school, citing the plight of the "shade tree" mechanic. Because today's cars, he explains, are largely computerized, neighborhood grease monkeys are quickly becoming extinct. "If you don't have the math aptitude, those jobs are being eliminated," he laments.
Still, while Project SEED instructors tell stories of disinterested students turned on by higher math and students who went on to become lawyers and teachers, they know their program will not help all children who end up in their classes. In a district where half of the students drop out before graduation (a failure rate comparable to most large urban districts), some students will drift away no matter what, for reasons as varied as boredom to the lure of a fast-food paycheck.
"As they get older, somehow the system beats the questioning out of the kids," Baker says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.