Shining Lights on Math
Improving Teachers' Math Knowledge Leads to Student SuccessJulia Cummings | School of Education and Human Development Aug 1, 2019
“Overall, the experience helped me to understand mathematical concepts at a much deeper level. Through training, I was able to assist my students in understanding not ‘just to do the math’ but ‘why the math.’ I couldn’t be prouder of my students’ determination and grit.”
—Ken White, fifth-grade teacher, Sheridan School District No. 2
Imagine an elementary math classroom where games are played almost every day, with fun names like “Please Go Bring for Me,” “French Fry” and “Double-Decker Bus.” As the students learn math through play, teachers focus on probing for meaning and thinking: “Why did you solve the problem in that way?” “Can you think of a different solution?” “How about you figure out this fraction problem using blocks, or paper or your imagination?” To promote such a practice, teachers who participated in the National Science Foundation-funded Student-Adaptive Pedagogy (AdPed) project have received professional development to shift their teaching toward a constructivist, student-centered approach in multiplicative and fractional reasoning. As AdPed progressed, the teachers learned to recognize each student’s approach to math and tailor teaching to it – rather than tailoring students to the textbook.
This type of a math classroom, which is 180 degrees different from most math classrooms, has become reality for students and teachers in Sheridan School District No. 2. The district discovered the secret ingredients to optimizing math for upper-elementary schoolchildren thanks to the collaboration with Dr. Ron Tzur, PhD, and his CU Denver team on a four-year National Science Foundation grant, as well as a Rose Community Foundation grant.
“Our grant team loved collaborating with the Sheridan School District No. 2 because of its dedicated school team, diverse students, guts and stamina,” said Tzur, professor of mathematics education at CU Denver. “They stuck with our trainings and our vigor for the needed three years. We trained about 20 teachers of third through eighth graders in 15 weekend and summer professional development days. Together, we explored how a playful pedagogy can enliven their math classrooms. We looked at math activities through a lens of responsiveness to students’ experiences and needs. Most importantly, we introduced to teachers how kids think about math as a basis for student-adaptive pedagogy – meeting students where they are, and then bringing their math up to speed. The results of this grant work were astounding and celebratory.”
Students in the Sheridan district performed well below the state average on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success tests (including the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) when AdPed was introduced, and scores did not improve noticeably for the first three years. However, in 2018-19, students in grades four and five had median growth percentiles in math of 74 and 64, respectively. A median growth percentile of 74 for the district means that their scores in spring 2019 were higher than 74% of Colorado students who had scores similar to theirs in 2018. Because this was the highest median growth percentile for any district in the state at fourth grade, it is a remarkable accomplishment. And only seven districts had a higher median growth percentile in fifth grade. Knowing that teachers attributed the growth to their own improved understanding of the math they teach, we are hopeful that the Sheridan district will see even higher scores next year, as the learning is consolidated and built upon from grade to grade.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled with these results,” said Tzur. “We think about each teacher and student who is impacted by this effort, and her or his trajectory moving forward. This work changes perceptions of what a capable mathematics learner looks like and where he or she comes from. We look at how confident the math teachers are, how the students have changed and how the school has changed. If we could replicate this effort in other Colorado districts, especially those with large underserved student populations, so as to grow an expert cadre of mathematics teachers trained in student-adaptive pedagogy, I believe we could change the math trajectory in our state.” Our project showed that helping teachers of math who are willing to stay the three-year course of hard work at learning new ways of thinking and problem solving with their students can have exceptional results!”