New way to teach math adds up at David Douglas elementary school
Author: Shasta Kearns Moore
Posted: November 17, 2017

Mill Park Elementary SchoolThe success rate of Portland students meeting state math standards is bad and getting worse. Fewer than half of Portland-area students have met or exceeded the math requirements under the three years since Smarter Balanced tests replaced the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

From the 2014-15 school year to the 2016-17 school year, the citywide average decreased from approximately 42.5 percent passing to 39.5 percent passing, according to an analysis of 139 Portland schools by the Portland Tribune.

That's worrisome to many, and presumably to the 1.2 million Oregon voters who passed Measure 98 in 2016. That measure will in part provide more resources for classes in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.

One program in the David Douglas School District in East Portland may show why math is such a struggle — and what do to about it.

Math leaders

The fifth graders in Ms. Montoya's class at Mill Park Elementary School all saw the same addition problem on the board the morning of Oct. 27. But their brains worked out several different ways to solve it.

Ashley Pelayo-Colores told the class she added each number place value together to get 87.65 + 12.34 = 99.99. Dominique Duncan broke up each place value into separate numbers to get a much longer equation with the right answer. And Valeriya Shipuk had yet another idea for how to get the correct answer.

As the students shared their different methods for the addition problem, the other children used hand signals to show if they did it that way too. These are called "number talks."

"I think number talks help me a lot to work in my brain to help me do math faster," Shipuk told the Tribune.

"I like how Ms. Montoya teaches math," added Pelayo-Colores, noting that last year there was a lot more explanation rather than hands-on exercises.

Mill Park teacher Carla Montoya was part of a $1 million state grant to give teachers better tools to teach math. The three-year Portland State University program called the East Metro Math Leadership Project taught 70 teachers in the David Douglas and Centennial districts.

While the school as a whole saw fewer students meeting state standards during those three years, the students under the math leadership program teachers produced Smarter Balanced math scores that averaged 34 points higher than their peers, according to the university.

Math methods

The principal investigator on the project, Portland State University professor Nicole Rigelman, said the program focused on giving teachers practical problem-solving skills to figure out why their students weren't understanding the concepts.

"We just really focused on lots of different engagement strategies and ways to make sense of things before digging into a task," Rigelman said. The project took a "student-focused" approach by taking data on what students understood and could express, rather than what the teachers were doing. Teachers would also visit each others' lessons to watch how students reacted to the information, so they could plan for how they could lead the next step of the discussion.

The techniques math leaders learned for teaching math involve getting kids to think concretely about math concepts before moving to pictures and finally symbols, such as numbers and equations. The kids need each step before they understand the more high-concept math.

"Often," said Wayne Bund, a first-grade teacher at Mill Park who was part of the math leadership program, "I think our push is to go straight to the symbolic."

In Bund's class, first-graders used connecting blocks to measure things all over the classroom. But even in high school, Bund said there could be manipulatives — toys — to help kids understand the concepts.

"This grant is an example of what high-quality teacher development can look like," Rigelman said. But even she admitted that it was a small drop in the bucket of need. Rigelman said teachers need more professional development like this.

"It's just not possible that a teacher preparation program is going to give them everything that they need," she said.

Montoya feels that there is too little practical application in a teacher's certification training.

"That's why a lot of teachers quit — because they're not prepared for the realities of teaching children."

In contrast, she said, the PSU grant program was "tangible, applicable and usable."

Scores still weak

Under the new Common Core standards of story problems in math and the need to explain one's thinking, math has gotten even harder for English-language-learner students, Montoya said. Mill Park serves an incredibly diverse population, with 61 percent English learners speaking 28 native languages.

Montoya said some of her students are refugees who are still just learning how to wear shoes and other basics of American life.

"There's not this recognition that the experiences of kids are so different than what we had 10 years ago, 20 years ago," Montoya said. "We say: 'we're going to do this and this and this,' and then we vilify teachers for not meeting the standards when we've raised the standards so much."

Montoya and Bund also have criticism for the state tests. They said the data showing that fewer students are meeting the benchmark at their school doesn't account for what they see: that students are performing so much better — even if they still aren't quite meeting the standards and therefore not counted as progressing.

Amy McQueen, the district's math administrator, said the foundational comfort with math the Mill Park students learn in elementary school will stay with them through the years.

"From elementary to middle school, it kind of comes together," McQueen said.

The same may also be true of students who learn to feel uncomfortable with math in their early years — who decide they are "not math people."

But Montoya said the notion that there are "math people" and "not math people" perpetuates a harmful idea that math is too hard.

The only difference, she said, is "you haven't learned it yet."

See more in our math scores spreadsheet.

Correction (11/9/17): Wayne Bund teaches first grade. This version has been corrected to reflect that.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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