Wood Shops and Math Scores

Spare FINAL THOUGHT — 714 words Wood Shops and Math Scores

A few years ago, a suburban school district in Pennsylvania faced a common problem: Its high school facility was inadequate, it needed space to expand programs and it was under pressure to improve test scores.

To improve test scores, the district had adopted a modified block schedule, expanded its academic offerings and given its poorer performing students an opportunity to take additional courses and tutoring sessions in English and, especially, math.

At the same time, many of the district’s better students and their parents were demanding an expansion of the district’s arts program. The high school had just one small art room and no space for a choral program — the chorus practiced in the cafeteria.

The school did have a wood shop and a metal shop, but because of the emphasis on test scores, few students were taking these courses. There was no time in a schedule that often called for doubling up math classes or taking expanded English.

The solution to the space problem seemed obvious. The two shops could be converted into beautiful new art studios and a computer lab dedicated to simulation programs. The former art room could be used for the choral program. Those students who still had time in their schedule for wood and metal courses could simulate the work they had been doing, using the computer lab.

Test Scores Go Down

And then, a funny thing happened on the way to the test results. Despite the extra time and emphasis, math scores did not improve. As a matter of fact, they declined!

The school’s response was to look at the math courses, at the level at which they were being taught, the materials used, the time spent on task, the amount of pre-test practice provided. A real effort was made to solve the problem.

However, after three years of continuing lower math test scores, a review of the situation was undertaken with some unexpected results: The top students were doing as well as ever on the tests, scoring high with no difficulty. The scores of the bulk of the students were slightly improved, possibly a result of some of the changes that had been made in the math curriculum.

But for about a quarter of the student body, the test scores were significantly down. A review indicated that in almost every case, these were students who, in past years, would have taken courses in the wood and metal shops. Now they were taking extra math and added computer courses but not translating that extra time-on-task to better test results.

“These are students who have difficulty understanding math concepts or understanding why they should even care about them,” the assistant superintendent who had analyzed the scores told me.“When they get into shop classes, they have an opportunity — really a necessity — to apply those concepts in a very concrete form. Math concepts that they do not understand, in words or theory, become very real and very important when they are using them to design and construct something.

“Many of these students not only understood math better when they applied it, they carried that better understanding into the tests and, as a result, scored pretty well. They also excelled in the shop work itself, giving them a better feeling about themselves. This was an area where they could star and we took it away from them.”

Bring Back the Shops

The district is now planning a new high school to replace its inadequate old one. It will include wood, metal and automotive repair shops, not as vocational training — students interested in vocational training will continue to go to an area technical school — but to insure that an important segment of the student body gets an opportunity to apply the theories they learn in math in real, hands-on situations. That experience, rather than just more courses in math, is expected to bring test scores back up where they belong.

The shops will be used by, and be important for, all the district’s students, including those at the top of the academic ladder. It will teach them manual skills that too many districts confined to the academic trashcan when they began to offer what once was called “industrial arts” through computer simulation.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."