At Waterford Junior High, a classroom full of seventh graders were captivated by teacher Terry Daniels’ explanation of the algebra equation on the screen.
1.5y-1=2, solve for y.
Daniels walked them through the solution, assuring the class at each step that they knew what to do. With a show of hands, it seemed they did.
Only 26% of fifth graders perform at or above grade level for math on standardized testing, compared to 39% of their peers across the state, according to the California Department of Education.
Students of color, those from lower-income families and who are English learners are even further behind in the state and in Stanislaus County.
StanMATH, one of the five action teams in Cradle to Career, wants to change that.
“We really want to see students achieve math at high levels, and develop a joy, confidence and success in mathematics” said Davis, a team leader for StanMATH.
MATH CAN BE A ROADBLOCK TO COLLEGE
Basic math skills are essential in life, and math proficiency is a predictor for college success, according to education researchers.
When StanFUTURES, the precursor to Cradle to Career, was evaluating the needs of county students for their educational and professional success, recipients of their scholarships reported that math was a major obstacle for getting through college.
At that time, 96% of Stanislaus County high school graduates who attended college were placed in remedial math, and of those, only 8% made it to graduation.
“What are the big strategies that we can push forward to improve these outcomes,” said Amanda Hughes, program director for the Stanislaus Community Foundation.
In response, they met with Modesto Junior College, developed a strategy of placing students in college-level math with support, and it helped.
This experience with MJC contributed to the call for the 2018 California law, requiring that community colleges stop mandating remedial classes based upon placement tests.
StanMATH started this school year. Actions include:
· Gathering data about standardized testing scores for math for Stanislaus County students
· Interviewing students and adults for their insights about the hurdles to learn math
· Identifying factors that contribute to low math proficiency, such as the lack of exposure to numeracy in early childhood
· Looking for “bright spots” throughout the county school districts to find practices that work
· Making plans to grow the action team to include members from the community to cultivate more resources
Davis identified Daniels’ gift for teaching math to students, as well as fellow teachers, as one of the “bright spots” the action team is trying to identify.
Daniels joined the district this school year, after more than two decades in the Sylvan Union School District, which had the highest student math scores in the county.
“I’ve always coached other teachers,” said Daniels.
He provides instructional coaching, essentially “teaching the teachers,” for sixth grade teachers in the Waterford district.
“Everything,” was Nataleigh Ward’s answer to what she likes about math.
She is a sixth grader at Waterford Middle School and her teacher, Kelly Gorman, is one of the participants in Daniels’ coaching.
Gorman said his instructions have taught her to use more interactive lessons, which have increased students’ enthusiasm for math.
In addition, the math teachers are available at lunch, and before and after school to give individual attention to students.
Another tool in the curriculum is “open math” with testing and homework available online. The students can do assignments on their ChromeBooks.
They are immediately shown the correct answers and are given the chance to re-do questions that they missed, which provides “real time” learning.
Gorman said, “They love the instant feedback.”
CHALLENGES TO LEARNING MATH
“The challenges that we see with math are really complex,” said Erin Cross, director of district and school support at the Stanislaus County Office of Education and a StanMATH team leader. “One of the goals of the action team is to understand why our students aren’t being more successful in math.”
Challenges identified include:
· Shortage of qualified teachers
· Resources needed to help the helpers
· Students aren’t prepared for next level
· Society’s view of math
· Generational differences
Shortage of qualified teachers is a national problem, and even more so locally. People with a love of math often pursue careers in higher paying jobs than teaching in K-12 schools. This is not easily solved, but one step is to ensure that math teachers have the support they need.
Students missing the building blocks to move to the next level clearly pose a problem. If they haven’t mastered addition, it’s difficult to move on to multiplication, and so on.
StanMATH encourages parents and the community to integrate numbers into daily activities for young children, such as counting items and playing rhythm games, to help build a math foundation.
Helping the helpers
“The teacher is the most important factor for student learning,” said Davis. However, he emphasized teachers aren’t alone in the classroom.
StanMATH is looking for ways to support all the helpers for students, not just teachers.
Some examples include that parents have access to videos of the math lessons. A few area schools host parent math nights, which helps orient them to the math instructions being used.
Society’s view of math
“Look how Hollywood portrays math,” said Cross. She shared a YouTube video with clips of different movies showing math as negative, difficult and not cool.
“Classroom math has become a genre on its own,” said Cross, “And people seem to think that it is all math, as opposed to the calculations that we all do every day.”
Little kids are very proud when they learn to count to 10 and learn fractions for sharing, such as dividing a cookie to give half to a playmate.
“The kids love math,” said Alma Costales, first grade teacher at Richard Moon Primary School in Waterford.
She thinks kids lose their love of math when they don’t understand a concept and their parents don’t either.
“Parents try to teach the kids like they learned but now we use different strategies,” said Costales, “So they struggle.”
Parents from Generation X generally learned classroom math with memorizing, and not dissecting the concepts, which is the current approach based in the Common Core curriculum.
A “fixed” mindset means individuals think their brains have a limited or “fixed” ability to learn. This is in comparison to believing the brain has no boundaries for learning, a “growth” mindset.
Belief that some people are naturally more capable at math and others are not is common, and one of the biggest hurdles for teaching and learning math.
StanMATH is trying to teach educators, students and the community that everyone is capable of grasping math concepts.
“We’re preparing our students for jobs that don’t exist yet,” said Megan Lowery, SCOE Cradle to Career director, discussing the critical need for math proficiency.
StanMATH is in its embryonic stage, so it is too soon to measure their impact, but the action team’s passion for mathematics, and their students, is palpable.
“The skills needed for math success such as perseverance and problem solving are important for other areas,” said Davis. “Kids that struggle and learn to persevere will do great in the world.”