1 Oregon district tries to change student stigma around math

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A lot of kids in McMinnville really like math.

After spending time multiplying decimals, Duniway Middle School sixth-grader Evangeline Chavez rates the subject a nine out of 10, noting "you are going to need it in your life."

Earlier, as Wascher Elementary fourth-grader Ashley Herrera practiced adding and subtracting numbers as large as 999,000, she remarked to no one in particular, "I've always really liked regrouping."

And over at Newby Elementary, Meredith Old's second-graders can barely contain their excitement as they realize she is going to have them write out a bunch of big numbers in extended notation -- and yes, they know what that means.

Second-graders at Newby Elementary use 10-sided dice to generate random numbers to write in expanded notation. They couldn't wait to do it, in part because they feel confident that they know their stuff when it comes to place values. Also: dice!

The zest to work with numbers is something McMinnville teachers and principals have worked hard to instill. After all, it's human nature to enjoy doing things we're adept at. And making sure nearly all students deeply understand math's foundational elements and can confidently solve complex problems is a priority in this school district set amid vineyards, farms and nurseries.

So far, just over half of McMinnville students have cleared that high bar, according to test results released for all Oregon districts Thursday. Still, that is one of the best success rates in the state and the highest for any district where Latino students make up more than 15 percent of enrollment. (In McMinnville, that figure is 26 percent.)

McMinnville's success offers an established pathway for other schools and districts that haven't found their footing in a new era of higher academic demands.

About five years ago, Oregon switched from its old state reading, writing and math standards to a more intellectually demanding set of expectations known as the Common Core. Four years ago, Oregon also changed the way it measures student achievement at school year's end, adopting a new test known as Smarter Balanced designed especially to measure those new, higher Common Core expectations.

That two-pronged switch threw much of the state's education system for a loop, particularly in math. A system that had once offered reassurance that 70 percent or more of students were making the grade in math suddenly in 2015 indicated that only 40 percent were. A second year of testing yielded no better math results statewide, nor did a third, nor this, the fourth.

Observers couldn't help but wonder: Is the content called for under the new math standards somehow off base? Or the tests simply too hard for ordinary Oregon students to pass?

The answers, according to officials at the Oregon Department of Education, are no and no.

The content that teachers are supposed to cover under the new math standards is relevant to Oregon students, Mark Freed, the state's math education specialist, said Thursday, the day the test scores came out. Dan Farley, who oversees student testing in Oregon, insists passing scores on the new math tests "are attainable, and I don't want to back off of a high expectation for Oregon students."

Common Core math standard ask a lot of students. They have to deeply understand math fundamentals and apply them in real-world situations. Across the state, only 41 percent of students hit the mark. Just over 50 percent of McMinnville students did this year, one of the best success levels in the state.

McMinnville teachers have faced those high expectations head on, determined that through smarts and teamwork, they can help all their students reach them or get darn close. Teachers and district leaders believe that research and trial-and-error have led them to highly effective strategies that are paying off. Collaboration and teacher-driven decision-making have been key, they say.

Teaching that elevates most students to master Common Core math started about six years ago in a not-at-all flashy way, as Curriculum Director Stephanie Legard and a half-dozen McMinnville teachers describe it: Teachers combed through the roughly 30 Common Core math standards per grade and picked about half of them as the highest priority. They then pulled those apart until teachers knew exactly what each standard means and what students must do to show they've mastered it.

McMinnville's list of priority standards doesn't change much if at all from year to year. But each year, teachers refresh their collective understanding of each priority standard for their grade.

The district's math teachers also use a lot of techniques that show up more noticably in the classroom -- and that students really respond to.

They get students talking, a lot. Teachers first define key terms and try to make them accessible to students. Meredith Old, for example, blew up a balloon in front of her second-graders to give them a strong visual cue to the meaning of "expanded" in the math term expanded notation.

They use sentence starters, such as "First, I —————" or "Two characteristics of linear equations are that they ——————— and they ————————," to give students a solid launch into articulating mathematical thoughts.

Then they ask students to talk: in pairs to each other, in singsong as a group, to each other again and aloud to the class. In Cyndi Havercroft's packed sixth-grade classroom at Duniway Middle School, leaning over to a fellow student and asking her how she got her answer isn't merely tolerated, it's encouraged.

Teachers also use repetition on overdrive. They explain key terms and concepts over and over, varying the language slightly so that students can find at least one explanation that resonates with them. Native Spanish speakers particularly benefit from teachers repeating concepts and phrasing them more than one way, but many native English speakers benefit as well, says Suzanne Scarboro, who teaches English language development.

Students copy visual cues from teachers and create their own as well. Every elementary student has a small whiteboard and a colored marker. There they draw number lines, sketch groups of circles or Xs, scribble equations and record answers.

Sometimes teachers ask all students to hold theirs up so the teacher can gauge all class members' understanding at a glance. Other times individual students show their work via a document camera so all can see while the child explains what he or she did and the rationale.

Students frequently show and explain their work to each other and to the whole class. Teachers work hard, Legard said, to create a climate of trust and respect so that students are willing to share. Those who make mistakes aren't laughed at or upbraided but asked to share their thinking so that all can see where the reasoning went wrong or an algorithm wasn't followed to help right their own paths as well.

"I'm getting a lot of good information here," fifth-grade teacher Kat McNeal tells her students as they pass her white boards with legitimate mathematical explorations that weren't tracking the path she had planned. McNeal has the class examine the work of a student who wrote exponents instead of decimals. McNeal uses the opportunity to have classmates consider the difference and reteach the term "exponent," then passes the board back to the student so she can get back on track.

Most McMinnville elementary teachers devote 90 to 100 minutes a day to teaching math, to give them time to help advanced students extend their learning and also circle back with those who need a second dose of the basics.

Teachers do a short written check as the end of each math session to see whether students can correctly answer a problem or, alternatively, to get them to write down one thing they understood in class that day and one thing they struggled with.

When Wascher Elementary teacher Julie Schaffner taught a unit on how to put decimals in order from largest to smallest, for example, she asked students to take a few minutes before the end of class to put 5 decimals she wrote on the board in order on a half sheet of paper and hand it to her. Immediately she could see which of her students got it and which needed further instruction.

The fact that so many McMinnville students don't master Common Core math by school year's end is not an indication they can't, Superintendent Maryalice Russell said. Rather, she said, it's a sign that the school day and school year aren't long enough for McMinnville teachers to finish the job, at least yet.

"Oregon's challenge, as is our challenge, is about the time that children have," she said.

As a result, McMinnville looks for every possible opportunity to extend the school year, she said. They offer pre-kindergarten for students believed to need the most boost to succeed in kindergarten. There is after-school homework help available four days a week. Some students are invited to summer school.

Duniway Middle School has an elaborate system to ensure students who miss deadlines still get their work accomplished, according to Principal Hilary Brittan Lack. In addition to offering homework help after school each day, the school keeps track of students who have missing assignments.

Students on the missing assignment list get help during lunch recess from a math teacher and two teacher aides. If that doesn't fix the issue, students are mandated to attend a catch-up session for an hour and a half after school on Wednesdays. If even that is not enough, those students spend part of the school day on Thursday getting one-on-one help to complete missing work.

Math is the No. 1 area where students struggle to get all work done, Brittan Lack said. But, she said, "We don't let them fail."

In math classes across the district, teachers make a point of equipping students to know what constitutes mastery and to judge their own proficiency as they work. "They can reflect on their own learning," Schaffner, a fifth-grade teacher, said.

With the constant feedback, said fourth-grade teacher Brenna Coad, "Our students always know where they are at and they really have ownership of their own learning . The language we use with kids is about growth. They know where they are and how far they have come."

McMinnville teachers created short pre-tests and end-of-unit tests that all teachers in a grade level give before and after covering each standard. Each school's teachers then meet in grade-level teams to discuss the results, listing by name the students who fell short. The team brainstorms what to do differently to get more students to show full or nearly full mastery.

There's no shame and no blame if one teacher has many more students than her colleagues who failed to catch on, said Wascher fourth-grade teacher Zealand Reynolds.

"We trust each other and come to the table as curious professionals," she said. The team focuses, she said, on figuring out what exactly led to the misunderstandings among the cluster of students who didn't get it -- and what techniques another teacher used to cut through that fog.

"The joy," Reynolds said, "is in drilling down and figuring it out."

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Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com


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