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City wants tech developers to join battle for better math scores

The latest development in Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to turn New York City into a technology hotspot involves getting software developers to tackle one of the city’s most intractable problems: middle school math scores.

In a new initiative, the Gap App Challenge, developers will compete to come up with innovative apps that improve middle school students’ math skills, Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today.

The initiative combines two of the Department of Education’s top priorities. For the last year, Walcott has focused on improving the city’s lagging middle schools. And Bloomberg said today that math has gotten short shrift for too long.

“Students who fall behind in middle school math are likely to remain behind through high school and less likely to graduate ready for college,” he said.

Principals, teachers, and department officials will join developers to judge app submissions. Winning proposals will net their developers financial and tech support, but any app entered into the competition could wind up in students’ hands next fall.

For example, an app could help students tackle the tricky task of translating a word problem into an equation they know how to solve, said Duane Gray, a partner at IDEO, a consulting firm that is helping the city with the Gap App Challenge. Under new learning standards known as the Common Core, students will face that task more than ever before.

The competition follows several efforts to bring cutting-edge technology into city schools. Last summer, students built apps in a new program called Generation Technology. In September, the city opened its first software engineering-focused high school, and the department has plans to expand a computer science curriculum to 20 new schools this fall.

Gray said the competition adds something new. “It’s not just an opportunity to drop solutions into the classroom but actually to bring early prototypes in that can be improved by direct collaboration with teachers and students in the classroom,” Gray said.

Officials did not specify today how many schools will have access to the apps or how developers will collaborate with educators. Winning developers will be named in June.

Bloomberg and Walcott made the announcement at East Bronx Academy for the Future, one of 250 city schools already working with new technologies as part of the Department of Education’s Innovation Zone. Principal Sarah Scrogin said the opportunity to work with developers will allow teachers to use technology even more effectively in her school.

“We need the private sector to partner with the public sector in this work of finding solutions to the learning needs of our children,” she said.

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