Comprehensive mathematics reforms boost achievement at three urban middle schools

iStock_000010045687XSmallWith middle-school mathematics programs in the United States in need of reform, the experience of several high-poverty schools in Philadelphia can provide important lessons for administrators and educators, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

After four years of experience with the Talent Development (TD) Middle School Mathematics Program, three middle schools found that one-third of their students gained 10 or more state percentiles between fifth and eighth grade, based on their PSSA Mathematics Achievement scores. About half of the students were able to substantially close their achievement gaps compared with other students in the state.However, researchers Robert Balfanz, Douglas J. Mac Iver and Vaghan Byrnes note that the remaining students “did no better than tread water, with their achievement gap remaining constant during the middle grades.” They suggest two variables that could improve results: a reduction in teacher mobility within and between schools to ensure higher levels of implementation of the TD program, and effective extra help for the substantial numbers of students who need it.

Teachers unenthusiastic about teaching math

The strategy in Philadelphia was to develop a schoolwide curriculum that was challenging and coherent, to use multiple tiers of professional development and to invite teacher participation. The effort was embedded in a schoolwide reform. The Philadelphia schools “shared many of the weaknesses reported in the literature about middle school mathematics in general,” the authors observe. “Each teacher was, by and large, making individual decisions about the type and level of mathematics needed by his or her classes.” One unintended consequence was that teachers tended to repeat the same material in successive grades.

“Most of the teachers were unenthusiastic about teaching mathematics but had been assigned to teach it, usually in combination with one or two other subjects,” the authors note. There was a lot of turnover and many teachers viewed it as a short-term assignment until they could obtain a better assignment.

Two of the schools are middle schools serving grades 5-8 while the third school served students in grades 6-8. At each school, there were 12 math teachers for approximately 1,000 students.

In Grades 5 and 6, the schools implemented Everyday Mathematics, from the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP) elementary curriculum; in Grade 7 they used UCSMP Transition Mathematics; and in Grade 8, UCSMP Algebra. According to the researchers, algebra and geometry are introduced early on and emphasized much more than in traditional programs. The program also emphasizes mathematical reasoning, problem solving, and communication. By the start of year 3, all three schools were offering the same curriculum and sequence of courses, culminating with the challenging Algebra text for all eighth graders.

Professional development is vital

Vital to the success of the program were the multiple tiers of professional development to educate teachers about the new curriculum. Teachers were offered a total of 36 hours of professional development, including three days of summer training followed by monthly threehour workshops on Saturdays. Make-up sessions were offered during the week after school. In accordance with the union contract, attendance was voluntary; teachers were paid day of $20 an hour. Beginning in the second year, a local university gave teachers three graduate course credits if they completed 36 hours and related assignments.

The workshops were led by experienced peer teachers who used the curricula. In addition to monthly professional development sessions, teachers had access to a curriculum coach who spent 1-2 days per week working with teachers in their classrooms. Overall, nearly 80% of the math teachers participated in some professional developments sessions, and about two-thirds achieved the minimum recommended level of 36 hours per year for two years.

But the researchers note that high turnover at the schools meant that many of the newly trained teachers were replaced each year by new, untrained teachers. Despite these serious challenges, across the four years of the study, two-thirds to three-fourths of classrooms in the three high-poverty middle schools achieved a least a medium-high level of implementation, the researchers report. They note that students benefited from a richer and more demanding curriculum and better trained and supported teachers.

“The Implementation and Impact of Evidence-Based Mathematics Reforms in High-Poverty Middle Schools: A Multi-Site, Multi-Year Study” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, January 2006 Volume 37, Number 1, pp. 33-59

Published in ERN January 2006 Volume 19 Number 1

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