If you spent any time this year volunteering at a low-performing high school—thank you! As a math and engineering teacher in such a school, I know how disorienting the experience can be. Teenagers can be all gas pedal and no brake. That's especially true for my students, many of whom are from families in which neither parent finished high school.


As disoriented as you may feel in a classroom in which most students score below or far below basic levels on state standardized tests—and too many still count on their fingers—you might consider how disenfranchised the students themselves feel. Most see no benefit to earning more than D's. Few of these students know anyone who ever worked in the corporate or professional world. My 1,500-student school near San Francisco even made national news this year after the principal locked all of its restrooms, except one, in order to limit drug use.

To motivate more students, schools like mine have turned to an academy model that incorporates project-based learning. We now have academies to prepare students for careers in hospitality, biomedical and digital media as well as in architecture, construction, manufacturing and engineering (ACME).

In my school's ACME academy, I teach a civil engineering and architecture course created by the non-profit group Project Lead the Way Inc. My school sent me to a two-week PLTW-sponsored seminar last summer at San Diego State University, where I relearned some basic engineering statics and beam design, in addition to Autodesk Revit software for building information modeling.

I have frequently stayed late after work this year, prepping for the upcoming week's engineering lessons. One lesson on wastewater management, for example, involved calculations to find the permissible slope of a pipe from a building to a sewer main.

However, I also had to teach my senior students—most of whom were taking precalculus—about the "order of operations," or how an algebraic expression is entered into a calculator with the correct grouping symbols. Unfortunately, of my seniors who took the SAT College Board test this year, most scored in the 1,200s out of a possible 2,400. Many critics blame us teachers for such low test scores.

‘Learned Helplessness’

Although formally evaluated this year as a "very strong teacher," I still struggle to help my "repeaters"—those taking Algebra 1 again and again—to recognize patterns. That difficulty at least partly results from what one psychologist has termed "learned helplessness."