I'd like to follow-up on the Walk-to-Math issue that I brought up at a recent Open Thread. I had heard Anna-Maria dela Fuente tell the board that Walk-to-Math was not ability grouping across classrooms, but rather students being instructed by a math specialist instead of their classroom teacher. Since I know some schools implement math instruction in ways that violate that, I gave the head's up.
I have now contacted Anna-Maria. We corresponded in email and spoke on the phone. I can now clarify the situation as far as I know it.
First, Anna-Maria did not deny my version of the May 4th Worksession, but said that it wasn't the whole picture. In particular, she pointed out to me that she doesn't make policy. So a lesson learned for her is that when she is speaking with the board or public, she needs to be clearer on that. There is no district wide policy on methods of math instruction involving walking. And as we all know, the board sets policy, so if there is to be such a policy, it would come from the board. Anna-Maria, however, is firm in her belief that distributing kids to different classrooms based on ability level often increases the achievement gap. The issue, she said is that when students are below grade level standards and are clumped together, sometimes the tendency is to teach them the standards of the lower grade level instead of accelerating them up to grade level standards. I completely agree that that is a terrible thing. I disagree with the notion that one is more likely to encounter that with across-classroom ability grouping than with in-class differentiation. Both scenarios have the possible pitfall of the kids at the bottom not getting their needs met, not getting targeted intervention.
Other concerns that we both share. How do we keep kids from self-labeling themselves as bad at math? Anna-Maria seems to think this is another major pitfall of walk-to-math ability grouping. But she also admitted that it is more pervasive, that no matter what, kids seem to self-identify themselves as kids who cannot learn math. I agree that this is an issue with our larger culture and school culture and no matter what sort of differentiation strategy we use, we have to figure out ways to overcome this. Again though, I think that early and targeted arithmetic mastery intervention will allow more kids to accelerate their mastery of conceptual work up to (and beyond) grade level.
We briefly touched on curriculum (which could have been a whole conversation and more). There are places where we agree and disagree. I said that the targeted interventions must include (or focus on) mastery of skills. Anna-Maria disagreed. Her example however, from her time teaching in a high poverty district, is that 9th graders would arrive with very little math knowledge because year after year all they got was worksheets to work on basic skills. She stated that kids needed access to real math, to more challenging work. Now I completely agree that her scenario is dreadful and must be eliminated. But it doesn't disagree with my claim, it simply shows that tracking with low expectations is unconscionable.
My anecdote is completely different. I tutor kids who are in our current curriculum and being taught grade level work. But because they haven't been required to master arithmetic skills, the conceptual work frustrates and confuses them. I spoke of a 7th grade girl who wanted to move from regular math into honors math, ie, take algebra 1 in 8th grade. I worked with her over the summer and much to her dismay, I did not start teaching her algebra or pre-algebra. I first determined her level of fluency with factoring; the curriculum is weak on this and I consider it key. She was dreadful. This was a rising 8th grader who had always gotten decent grades in math, but could not accurately and fluently factor a two digit number. So for 6 weeks, that's what we did. Finally, she could take two numbers of any number of digits and find both their GCF and LCM. I do believe that the key to algebra is fluency with prime factorization and GCF/LCM. She did well in 8th grade algebra and her teacher reported to me that she was fast with understanding the new concepts, sometimes the fastest. Did she love our summer together of drill, baby, drill? No. But she was motivated to move to honors, she trusted my judgment that this work would help and she knew it was just for the summer.
Again, back to curriculum, I suggested that the district mandated curriculum is too weak in mastery of skills. Well, that's a can of worms that we didn't get into, but Anna-Maria disagreed. But Anna-Maria said that often elementary school teachers are not strong in the math content area. So they simply plow through the curriculum they have, without having the knowledge or confidence to know what to emphasize and how to make the curriculum work for their students. I think that this is valid and is most likely valid no matter the curricular materials the teachers have. (But I do think our particular math adoptions exacerbate the problems, but that's another whole discussion.) To combat that, the district is providing week long math content professional development for elementary school teachers this summer. I think (from my notes from May 4th) that there are 330 elementary school teachers signed up and 70 on a waiting list.
Anna-Maria also thinks highly of employing math specialists. This can be a distinct math specialist working in the school, or a scenario where kids move to a classroom of someone who is stronger in math instruction for math, while that class of students is taught science or something else by a different teacher. She definitely thinks that those are two better scenarios than walk-to-math by ability grouping. I pointed out that I had heard at a previous meeting that was discouraged or problematic because of using MAP scores to identify effective teachers. If kids moved to a different classroom or were taught by a specialist, who would get credit for those kids' growth (or flagged for lack of growth)? She didn't think that was an issue, but we didn't dig into it and I cannot recall the event or which staff person had brought up the issue.
But she wants to know more. In particular, Peter Maier has asked for a board workshop focusing on walk-to-math. So, did I know of schools where it was working? Well, as I have a 17 year old, I do not have direct current knowledge of elementary schools but have heard people praising various school models. One neighbor told me that their walk-to-math employed flexible grouping (which Anna-Maria agrees could be beneficial, but is certainly more of an organizational challenge). I heard that the groupings change for the different math topics that are covered throughout the year. She said she would follow up to get more information.
Now I do not like the use of student test scores to identify effective teachers, because I think that the science shows that is just not reliable. But I do like using information to guide decision-making. I pointed out that Mark Teoh defended MAP because -- even though parents and teachers are pointing out that it is not useful to inform instruction and teachers already use assessments that do -- it is the one assessment that is district wide and can compare across schools. I said that I found that frustrating because even though the district already gets that sort of analysis from the state, the "Beating the Odds" schools that do much better than predicted based on their demographic, we never seem to use that information. She recalled, as I did, Brad Bernatek presenting the chart with the schools that Beat the Odds in math. Identifying the schools was only the first step and that what should have happened next was someone researching the schools that performed much better than expected and the schools that performed worse than expected and use that information to help schools improve. If I were on the board, that's exactly the kind of math workshop I would want. What schools are identified with doing better than predicted on Math achievement, what are they doing and how can we replicate it? Wouldn't that be so much better than an abstract discussion of tracking, ability grouping and walk-to-math instruction?