Early Math Teachers Celebrate ‘Critical Thinking, Not Correct Answers’

With math literacy a must for most jobs in our knowledge economy, Secretary Duncan has called math teachers “our nation-builders of the future.” Yet, just 40 percent of 4th-graders and 35 percent of 8th-graders are proficient in math, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Playing Games at Diego School

Student Richard Mitchell III and his dad, Richard Mitchell Jr. enjoy a math game that uses the Candy Land board game with kindergarten teacher Heather Gustafson during a Family Game Evening at Jose de Diego Community Academy.

Aimed at increasing young students’ proficiency in math, Chicago’s Erikson Institute is transforming how teachers in pre-K through 3rd grade approach mathematics lessons through a research-based training funded by a five-year, $5 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Development grant awarded by ED in 2010.  i3 “Development” grants support new and high-potential practices to improve student learning, and pairs that support with funding to evaluate the impact of the practices.

Through Erikson’s Early Mathematics Education Project, teachers are trained to lead “classrooms that celebrate critical thinking, not correct answers,” according to Erikson Senior Instructor Rebeca Itzkowich. For this i3 grant, teachers at eight public elementary schools in Chicago are participating in the professional development, which will ultimately support more than 4,500 students each year.

The project’s professional development includes learning labs, individualized coaching, school-based learning groups, and classroom implementation. Erikson’s professional development model produced almost three additional months of mathematics learning during a school year, in comparison to a matched contrast group, and helped teachers narrow the math achievement gap before children entered elementary school.

These new strategies fueled a new energy around math lessons for teacher Michelle Quinton and her 2nd graders at Federico Garcia Lorca Elementary School in Chicago.

“Students’ attitudes have been extremely different. They are excited. They are verbal.  They are expressing themselves in new ways.  They now feel success where they hadn’t before,” said Quinton, who participated in Erikson training throughout the 2011-2012 school year.

Some of Quinton’s new practices have more to do with what she doesn’t do, than what she does. For example, when pupils struggle with problems, she often steps aside to let them work out solutions with their classmates rather giving them quick answers.

“Kids hearing it from me doesn’t always work. Kids hearing it from other kids has been a huge success,” she said.

Recognizing that kids learn differently and don’t respond equally well to common math processes, Erikson’s training also filled teachers’ “toolboxes” with multiple calculation methods for math operations.

“For different kids, certain algorithms make more sense and are more comfortable; it’s like different shoes for different people,” said Itzkowich. “We all have different shortcuts to get to the same place.”

While teacher training to improve instruction is the heart of the project, family help outside of school is vital. To ensure that math reinforcement was successful, Erikson took into account the realities of modern family life, said Itzkowich.

“We had to find ways that parents felt successful supporting their kids’ mathematics learning that are pleasurable and can be incorporated into their home life,” she said, noting that after long days at work, “parents often have a hard enough time just making dinner, getting their kids to eat and brush their teeth.”

Using items that many families already had in their homes — like beans, dice and board games such as Candy Land — Erikson faculty members provide teachers with simple games that engage young students in mathematical learning and understanding in a fun way.  Teachers, in turn, shared these activities with their students and parents at “Family Game Evenings” during the school year.

“Parents left the classrooms feeling like ‘I never thought this had so much mathematical  possibilities, this is fun and I can definitely  do this,’” said Itzkowich.

Erikson Institute is one of 72 organizations awarded funding by ED in the first two years of the i3 program, which supports the development and scaling of ambitious, effective practices that improve student achievement. The program encourages school districts, nonprofit organizations and local partners with a record of achievement to work together on innovative efforts. Applicants must have a history of closing achievement gaps, improving student achievement, increasing high school graduation rates, and/or increasing college enrollment and completion rates. Awards for 2012 will be announced later this year.

Julie Ewart is the director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office

Former Geometry Teacher Supports States as Their Reforms Take Shape

Editors Note: Teachers@ED profiles some of the hundreds of current and former educators who work at the U.S. Department of Education, and how their experiences in schools inform their work for the agency.

One of Tate Gould’s favorite memories as a teacher was his lesson on geometric proofs. He would set up a “courtroom environment” where students played the role of lawyer, trying to develop a method for solving various geometric proofs.  Each team had the opportunity to present their approach defending their method against “objections” from other teams while engaging in a healthy defense and debate about their method for solving the problem..

Teachers@ED LogoWhat made these lessons interesting for students was the fact that there was no single way to solve the geometric proof. And Gould, who now works on the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top team as the deputy director of Implementation and Support Unit for Technical Assistance, would say the same is true with education reform. As states are coming up with different and innovative plans to better educate their students, there is more than one way to achieve the end result of reforming the classroom experience.

Gould has ample education experience, both on the ground in schools and in the policy arena. He attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for his undergraduate degree and was National Board Certified as a secondary education math teacher. He taught 9th through 12th grade for over five years in a high-needs school. He earned a masters degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a doctorate from UNC, both in education policy.

Tate Gould helping a student solve a problem

Tate Gould was a secondary education math teacher before coming to the Department of Education.

While teaching, Gould tried to connect with individual students while being mindful of teaching an entire class. He recalled that one of the challenges of teaching is building trust of the individuals in order to manage the class.

“I always wanted to be a teacher. I just didn’t know it,” he said. “I always kind of gravitated to the type of work. I like managing people, and teaching allows you to do that constantly. I liked treating the classroom like a team and trying to get that team to accomplish similar goals.”

Gould has experienced a similar challenge in his work at ED. While the Race to the Top initiative awards states that are leading the way in ambitious plans for implementing innovative, coherent and comprehensive education reform, Gould has similar challenges with navigating the relationship between the states and the federal government.  The challenge: how to foster a level of trust with each state while demonstrating to them that they are collectively working on the same goals.

“A good teacher manages the individual, but also the group,” Gould said. “That’s what our challenge here is. These plans are really what the states came up with. How can we get them to teach and learn from each other? How do we create a supportive environment for them with experts, other federal grant programs, and external organizations to create a network of resources to help these states achieve ambitious goals?”

Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and a recent intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.