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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

How Changing District Culture Improved Math Scores

One district in Connecticut saw gains despite the pandemic
By Mark Benigni — March 13, 2023 6 min read
Math Gains FCG
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Clarification: This blog post has been clarified to more accurately describe student math achievement in the district.

When our students’ math scores weren’t where we wanted them to be at the Meriden public schools, we hired a new director of elementary school leadership to overhaul our math instruction. We also worked to overhaul the culture across our entire district. As a result, not only did we increase the number of students who met or exceeded their state math-growth targets, we did it throughout the pandemic, when many schools were seeing declines in math. We reviewed pre-pandemic state student-growth data from 2018-19 with like data from 2021-22 and saw that more Meriden students had met their state provided growth targets. (There was a pause in testing in the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic. Although state testing resumed in 2020-21, data were only shared with individual school districts, as growth data could not be determined.)

Fostering a Mutually Supportive Learning Community

Teachers need data to effectively differentiate instruction for students, but tracking that data down isn’t always easy. We don’t want our teachers going on fishing expeditions when they could better spend their time supporting students, so we give them any relevant data we have at the district level to help them get an understanding of where students are and what their needs are.

We also have resources in place to address those needs. There will always be students who need additional support, so we hire tutors, provide them stations to work at, and train them to provide that targeted help. We also have digital resources to supplement learning for students who need a little more.

Teachers need ongoing support, so we make it a point to say yes wherever possible to requests for professional development. Sometimes, those requests are to attend a workshop or other training activity, but often, our teachers will step up and offer professional learning sessions for their colleagues. We’re more than happy to compensate our teachers who choose to stay beyond the school day to further their own learning, but they are also eager to learn from one another. When these sessions are coming from our teachers for our teachers, we believe they are more relevant to our students’ needs, so we love to say yes to these requests.

Encouraging this kind of mutually supportive learning community among our teachers begins with recruiting the right people to the team. We want great teachers, certainly, but it’s just as important that they are the right fit for our district’s philosophy. One question I always ask teacher-candidates is how they will know on the last day of school if they’ve been successful. What I’m looking for them to say is some version of, “Well, if I’ve built great connections with kids and their families and they’re progressing academically, I’ve done a good job.”

Someone who’s only focused on great scores isn’t the right fit, and neither is someone who only cares about relationships. We need teachers who are going to push learning while they build the kind of positive relationships that help students find success when things get challenging.

Keeping Engagement Front and Center

We don’t focus on stressing the importance of attendance to parents for the sole purpose of compliance; we know that students attend regularly when they are engaged in their learning. The best way to ensure students show up every day is when their teacher is saying things like, “Hey, look at this, on Friday, we have this great activity. We’re going to pair you with four of your classmates, and you’re going to play team math games.”

Keeping students engaged also means removing barriers to participation, and one huge barrier we’re able to remove is cost. We offer Saturday Academies that are enrichment-based and run by our teachers. We invite all students to participate in our summer programming for free. We offer universal free breakfast and lunch and we provide food service or meals with our programming whenever we can. Every student gets a computing device to use at home for free, and, if they need internet access, we give them a free hot spot. Students do not pay participation fees for activities like field trips, sports, and other extracurricular activities because the fun activities are important to building community and motivating students to come to school day after day.

Addressing Students’ Math Struggles

When we realized our students were struggling with math, we brought in a new director of school leadership, Daniel Crispino, to oversee all of our curriculum. Since then, our math scores have consistently improved, even during the pandemic when most schools were losing ground.

He did it by not being afraid to make some big changes. Our math block went from 60 minutes to 90, beginning with a 30-minute lesson and followed by 60 minutes of station rotations. We use consistent lessons between classes and we adopted a consistent vocabulary for math throughout the district.

We also use a math program, ST Math, that focuses on conceptual learning by asking students to solve puzzles. This visual learning program eliminates the barrier to engagement for students who are learning English, and students enjoy the puzzles and the mascot, so they’re motivated to work on it. Since they often try and fail repeatedly to solve the puzzles, receiving informative feedback along the way, productive struggle is baked in, and they often ask each other about ideas they’ve tried out instead of asking their teachers for help.

Our coaches have aligned the program to our curriculum, so students receive an introduction to concepts through the games, then get more practice with them in class, along with vocabulary to discuss the concepts. After completing their learning objectives in this program, their average post-quiz score is 70.23, which is more than 12 points higher than their average pre-quiz score of 58.03. That’s demonstrable growth, but the learning doesn’t stop when class is over.

Reframing a District Relationship With Parents

Encouraging our families to engage with their children’s education begins in the classroom with the teacher, just as improving student attendance does. When a teacher tells a student about that fun team math game to get them excited about coming to class, they also send a message home about it. We encourage teachers to talk about the fun stuff because we know that families seeing their children excited about something is the surest path to engaged parents and higher attendance.

Another way we try to cultivate a two-way relationship with our families is through our surveys. Families can fill these out at any time online, and they have the option to leave comments at the end. Those comments then go to the principal of the student’s school so they can respond. Whether it’s about a student who says they don’t have any friends to sit with at lunch, or a problem with a math teacher, or something positive like a student who loves to read, the principal reaches out to chat with them. It’s important that parents have an opportunity to share their concerns and know they are being heard.

When we were looking for strategies to improve attendance at family-teacher conferences, we explored a million ways, and none of them worked all that well. The pandemic made us look at conferences completely differently because we had the highest conference attendance ever. Now, we’re much more flexible. If a family member wants to come in, they are certainly welcome to, but if they want to call in on their 15-minute break for a video chat, we accommodate that as well.

Changing the culture in a district can feel like an overwhelming task, but it starts with not being afraid to take risks, starting small, and building on success. As long as you’re able to learn from failure, there’s no downside to jumping right in to try new things. And it’s worth it, because a positive culture will lift every area of the district, even tough subjects like math.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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