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Central Valley math teachers taking big steps to improve math outcomes

In the past, many Central Valley students couldn’t do math at their grade level. They struggled with basic concepts, then moved on to the next level without the skills needed to be successful.

But that is changing.

Math teachers across the district are taking a hard look at how we teach math.

Understanding the problem

Fixing something begins by identifying what needs fixing. Here is what math teachers realized:

•  Step-by-step lesson books and math pages were teaching one math concept at a time. They forced teachers and students to finish the concept then promptly move on to the next.

•  Students who didn’t master the first steps, lacked the basic skills to move on. That problem became steadily worse as they worked with more complex math concepts.

•  Students were easily confused when one teacher taught them to do something one way and the next teacher taught them to do it differently. (Parents can relate to this. How many times have you helped your child with homework only to be told, “That’s not how my teacher says to do it.”)

Local assessments, state assessments, and Regents exams all showed Central Valley students lagged behind other New York state students. A sad 47 percent of Central Valley graduates attending Herkimer College were forced to take remedial math to prepare them for basic college math courses.

It was time for a change.

Finding a solution

Teachers didn’t have to look very far to find ways to improve math instruction. They started by looking around the district to see what was already working.

What followed were three major objectives:

  1.  Identify five Power Standards for each grade K-8 (see the Power Standards). Power Standards are key math skills students need to master at each grade level.
  2. Map the math curriculum. Mapping is simply laying out the what is taught and when. It ensures students master the concepts they need to be prepared for the “next step” in their math careers.
  3. Commit to ongoing instructional consistency. This simply means that the district’s math teachers all use the same strategies to teach a particular math concept. (No more, “Last year, my teacher told me to do it this way.”)

In the classroom, spiral review—reteaching, reminding, and refreshing past concepts—is becoming the norm. It helps students become comfortable with concepts and vocabulary, and automatic with their math facts. Parents may hear about spiral review tools such as bell ringers (quick questions that check a student’s understanding of previously taught concepts), “By the end of class, I can” statements (class objectives that clearly set student/teacher expectations), and exit tickets (questions that test for understanding at the end of class).

These tools help student and teacher know the student is on track. If a student struggles, the teacher can look for ways to personalize instruction to help the student get back on pace.

The tools also identify students who grasp math quickly. To meet their needs, Jarvis has created an accelerated program that would allow middle school students to begin taking high school algebra or even geometry as seventh and eighth graders.

The future

Math curriculum chairperson Jessica Bowman is excited by what she has seen to date.

She said as teachers adopt these teaching strategies, she sees students performing better. The focus of change has been in grades K-8. For example, Fisher Elementary math lessons regularly include Math and Movement, the use of physical movements with number fluency activities (such as addition facts and multiplication tables). Teachers have also increased the time students spend using manipulatives (physical objects used as teaching tools to engage students in the hands-on learning). She said Jarvis and CVA math teachers are adopting innovative practices such as flipped classes (students watch the lesson as homework and practice skills in the classroom.) The effect of the changes will steadily build upon each other and with each class.

That will ultimately lead to greater success for every student, whatever their career interests. Not every student plans to teach math or become an accountant, but every one needs to handle personal finances and make smart decision when using a credit card or borrowing for a new car. Mrs. Bowman expects that early math success will lead to students enjoying math and working hard to acquire these important skills.

For those pursuing math or science careers that demand in complex math, Mrs. Bowman envisions greater student mastery of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. She sees greater success in high rigor Advanced Placement Calculus I and Calculus II. She sees no more remedial college math, no more paying for knowledge a student can get for free in high school.