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Success adds up for D.C. schools' math program

[By Bill Turque, Washington Post Staff Writer, Monday, March 8, 2010]

It was fractions week in Camille Jackson's third-grade math class at Noyes Education Campus. To kick off a mid-morning lesson last month, she asked her 18 students to look not at the board or at materials on their desks, but under their chairs.

Taped to the bottom of each was a card with the last name of a teacher at the Northeast Washington school. The students' task: Pick out the vowels and determine what fraction of the whole name they represent.

"What's the fraction of vowels in Mr. Waldstein's name?"

"Three-ninths," said one boy.

"Ms. Tugman?"

"Two-sixths?" a girl ventured.

"Very good. You guys are doing an awesome job!" Jackson said.

Her approach is part of a math curriculum that is yielding promising results for D.C. public school children. The road to mastery no longer runs strictly through rote memorization and drilling, District educators say. It requires deeper conceptual understanding.

They say they think the shift is paying off. December results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to fourth- and eighth-graders every two years, showed that the District was the only one of 11 urban school systems tested that made significant gains in math in 2007 and 2009. Since 2003, its fourth-grade math scores have grown at triple the national rate and about double that of all large cities. Reading scores will be released this year.

Although the District's public schools remain well behind high-achieving suburban systems in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, officials consider the progress a validation of changes they've made in math instruction over the past several years.

"The whole thrust has changed in how we engage children," said Marguerite Nelson, elementary math curriculum specialist for D.C. public schools.

The shift is a legacy of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's predecessor, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, who imported more rigorous math and reading standards to the District from Massachusetts in 2005, along with the DC-CAS, an annual standardized test that resembles the NAEP. That year, he also introduced Everyday Mathematics, a K-6 curriculum developed in the 1990s by the University of Chicago. It emphasizes problem solving rooted in the students' world and frequent practice of math skills through games.

In baseball multiplication, for example, a "pitcher" rolls the dice for a "batter," who multiplies the numbers that come up. The answers correspond to outs, singles, doubles, triples or home runs.

Everyday Mathematics is organized along a "spiral" format that introduces and revisits topics, instead of focusing on each for an extended period and then moving on. As the year progresses, Jackson's class will weave in and out of fractions, addition and subtraction with regrouping (or borrowing), multiplication and division facts, decimals, measurements and probability. The students are expected to master some of the skills; other skills are introduced to prepare for fourth grade.

The program is among the nation's most popular, used by more than 3 million students in 185,000 classrooms, including Montgomery County schools, according to publisher McGraw-Hill.

Although Janey laid the groundwork in the District, Nelson said Rhee was "right in line" when she took over in 2007. She has placed "instructional coaches" on school staffs to help teachers improve their practices and stepped up the frequency and quality of professional development.

"It's a variety of things that we have in place," Rhee said when asked what has influenced the NAEP scores.

Jackson works hard to keep kids engaged, with strategies from Everyday Mathematics and her own playbook. She moves them briskly from task to task over the course of a one-hour lesson. They go from behind their desks to cross-legged on the carpet and then back. In one segment, she distributes plastic bags with 14 Smarties, the multicolored, tablet-size candies. She asks them to divide a circle into 14 segments and sort out how different colors represent fractions of the whole.

"Who does not understand what Miss Jackson wants you to do?" she asks.

She gets more than a few takers, who have some trouble getting their circles divided correctly. As the kids work in groups, some helping one another, she moves from table to table to assist.

This approach also has a significant corps of detractors, who say that Everyday Mathematics is "fuzzy math" that leaves students with insufficient grounding in basic computational skills. Texas officials dropped the curriculum in 2007. That was a year after the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the nation's leading group of math educators, recommended a renewed emphasis on basic skills.

Research on the long-term effectiveness of Everyday Mathematics is not conclusive. An analysis of studies by the Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse gives it a "potentially positive" rating, higher than other math curricula but hardly conclusive.

Some District teachers have opted out of Everyday Mathematics because of the same concerns. Rebecca Stevens, a third-grade math teacher at Francis-Stevens in Foggy Bottom, said the program moves too quickly and doesn't provide enough practice.

"You need to master the facts," she said.

School officials said teachers are free to craft any approach that produces results. At Noyes, math proficiency on DC-CAS standardized tests has nearly doubled since 2007, from 34 to 64 percent. Stevens reports that more than 90 percent of her third-grade class last year scored at a proficient or advanced level on the DC-CAS.

Rhee and the District are poised to continue the transition started by Janey. The District is part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop a national set of English and math guidelines.

In its application to the federal Race to the Top grant competition, District officials said future math standards will continue the shift "from algorithmic fluency to conceptual understanding," a move they said will "better prepare D.C. students to move into higher education and competitive workforce options." 

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