Alex Winslow of Lakewood wanted teaching software in his kids’ school, and he wound up helping to procure it for all of DISD. Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

Alex Winslow of Lakewood needed help tutoring his kids in math, and he heard about a software program called Reasoning Minds, which was developed by a Texas A&M University professor.

So he contacted the company and bought the software, which teaches kids math through a video game.

A few months later, the CEO of Reasoning Minds invited him to a presentation at J. Erik Johnson Community School in Oak Cliff, which is one of 20 Dallas ISD schools that raised money to buy the program and started using it last year. Winslow invited DISD Trustee Mike Morath to tag along to the presentation. When they arrived, they found several other trustees in attendance.

Winslow just wanted the program for Lakewood Elementary School, which his kids attend. But the DISD trustees were so impressed with the program that they decided to recommend the software in every DISD elementary school.

“After the meeting, [Morath] said, ‘Why aren’t we doing this district-wide?’ ” Winslow recalls.

The trustees were successful in putting an item on the school board’s consent agenda to allocate $1.8 million so that all second-grade students in DISD will use the Reasoning Minds software starting this school year. Next year, they will add third grade and the year after, fourth grade, then fifth and sixth. Reasoning Minds only makes programs up to the sixth-grade level, but Morath hopes the company will develop math programs through the 12th-grade level, or DISD will buy a similar program from another company to serve the higher grade levels.

A huge number of Dallas ISD students are failing math. In third through sixth grades, about 80 percent of students can meet at least the minimum standard on the state’s assessment test. But by high school, almost half of them are lost. In 2010, just 54 percent of students in grades nine through 11 passed the math portion of the assessment test.

That means about 12,000 DISD high school students don’t have basic math skills.

Reasoning Minds was developed by a Russian national after he discovered his kids were struggling to learn math. He created a video game that teaches math the way he learned it in Russia. Think Super Mario Brothers, except instead of developing hand-eye coordination, students must master certain mathematical concepts to “beat” each level of the game.

“It allows the teacher to know exactly where each kid is,” Winslow says. “It also doesn’t allow for a culture of passing the kid due to social pressure and so on. Before they can move on, they have to get the concepts, so the building blocks are going to be there.”

Morath is an advocate of this type of technology in schools.

A huge problem for teachers everywhere is that they have 24-30 students who are at different levels, he says. So a fourth-grade teacher might have 10 students who are a full grade-level behind, 10 students who are on grade level, and “a few who are geniuses bored out of their minds and setting the trash can on fire,” Morath says.

But the teacher’s goal is to have all of those students at the same level by the end of the year so they can start the next grade on track. That almost never happens, Morath says.

One way to solve the problem is to “clump” students into groups by ability. But that typically requires teachers to bounce from one group to the next giving instruction, which may not the best use of time.

Everyone’s mind is different, and we all learn at different rates. So clumping students can be risky. Being categorized into a “gifted” group or a low-level group could change how students think about themselves and alter their learning outcomes, Morath says.

He believes technology is a more effective solution.

“The computer forces the kid to work on this thing until they’ve mastered it,” he says. “So you have every kid being instructed at their level.”

That puts the teacher in a less frantic role, answering questions and offering guidance to students as needed.

Every school that has rolled out Reasoning Minds or similar products has seen great improvements in math scores, Morath says.

Another advantage is that each child gets an account with Reasoning Minds, so they can work on it any time and any place that has internet access. If students change schools, there is no catching up or idling behind, because their account stays with them, and they can pick right up where they left off at the previous school.

Morath calls it a “game-changer” for education.

“It’s nothing short of revolutionary,” Morath says. “If we can do it in math and then science and then social studies and English … If there’s technology available, then we’re going to use it.”

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