Superintendent Christy Boyte has lost count of the number of messages she’s received from vendors promising a digital silver bullet to boost math achievement in her Louisiana school district. Most are quickly trashed.
“There is a lot of stuff out there that proclaims itself to be good, but it’s not aligned to standards and it’s not rigorous,” said Boyte, the head of the West Carroll Parish school district.
During the height of the pandemic, “people were crawling out of the woodwork with all these new programs that they were developing,” she said. “We probably got a thousand emails of people trying to sell us their online platforms. A lot of them have already gone by the wayside.”
It’s easy to see why vendors tried to seize a market opportunity in math, even now that in-person learning has resumed. Math scores for 13-year-olds fell 9 points between the 2019-20 and 2022-23 school years, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation’s report card.” In theory, digital tools can deliver engaging, personalized lessons to help reverse that trend.
And many educators do see benefits. Nearly two-thirds of educators said they are satisfied with the quality of math tools their districts use, according to a survey by the EdWeek Research Center of 1,156 educators conducted May 31 to June 9.
Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said the math tools they use are good, while another 10 percent described them as excellent. Just 5 percent said they find the math tools used in their classes to be poor, and 25 percent described them as mediocre. (Another 9 percent said they didn’t use tech tools to teach math.)
But finding the right tool for a district’s instructional philosophy, culture, and capacity is still a challenge, educators say. Education Week examined how three districts approached this challenge, at the high school, middle, and elementary levels.
How to use virtual reality for real-world math problem-solving in high school
Elizabeth Fagen, a former chemistry teacher who now leads the Humble Independent school district outside Houston, has long been frustrated that few digital math tools give students a clear picture of how the formulas and procedures they are learning function in the real world.
But this school year, her district will pilot a tool at the middle and high school levels that she thinks may be an exception. Prisms, a virtual reality platform, which launched in 2021, allows students to enter an immersive experience in which they are presented with a realistic problem to solve using math, science, or a combination of both.
In one scenario, for instance, students find themselves in a cafeteria. As they are paying for their food, someone sneezes. Suddenly, there’s an announcement that a virus is spreading. Students collect data and apply mathematical concepts—like multipliers—to determine how to slow its progress.
Back when she was a high school chemistry teacher, Fagen found that students often “don’t really conceptually understand some of the big ideas” underlying seemingly rote material, such as formulas and processes they were learning in chemistry. “They learn it for the test and then they move on with their life,” she said.
Fagen is hopeful that getting the chance to be immersed in a real-world problem that “requires you to construct the meaning of concepts and then use them to solve that problem will change the way that these students see and experience math in a way that creates long-term learning and understanding,” she said. “That would be huge.
Students who used Prisms have reported that the tool has increased their understanding and engagement in math and given them a better understanding of how the subject is used in the real world, according to a study conducted by WestEd. (Some products that compete with Prisms include Desmos, ClassVR, and Inspirit.)
The Humble district initially rolled out Prisms in a dozen schools this school year and is monitoring its effectiveness and implementation at campuses that serve a high percentage of children living in poverty and as well as schools that serve a wealthier population. So far, the district has trained more than 40 teachers who lead classes in biology, chemistry, Algebra 1, geometry, and 8th grade math.
Fagen praised the company’s extensive professional development, but she isn’t sure that every district is positioned to rapidly embrace a tool like Prisms. For one thing, VR-powered programs would likely frustrate educators in districts where connectivity is insufficient or choppy. And the tool is on the pricier side, about $16.29 per student, which may be a stretch for many districts.
Humble also has a lot of “infrastructure to support teachers and try new things,” Fagen said. “If you don’t have that, I think you could have one-off success with a teacher who’s just naturally inclined toward technology and is a naturally great teacher, but you’re probably not going to have a full implementation across your system.”
Putting accelerated learning to work in the middle school math classroom
Heidi Stephens teaches middle school math in the West Carroll Parish schools in Louisiana. Right now, her math instruction relies heavily on small-group work, a tried-and-true elementary strategy.
Whenever she teaches a lesson, Stephens divides her 7th grade students into two groups: One works on a concept with her, and the other half covers similar material through Zearn, a digital math tool used by about a million middle school students nationwide. District leaders often compare Zearn to math-learning tools like Eureka Math, Illustrative Math, Khan Academy, and iReady.
Zearn’s focus is on acceleration—reviewing information from a previous grade only to the extent necessary to support learning new, grade-level subject matter—as opposed to remediation, which typically means relearning content from a previous grade in greater depth in order to tackle new material. Remediation has its place, experts say, but an overreliance on it can keep students from advancing academically. (West Carroll offers a separate opportunity for math remediation for students who need it.)
The tool has research to back up its effectiveness. Elementary and middle school students who consistently used Zearn scored an average of 6 points higher on state assessments than peers who did not use the program, according to a study conducted by Zearn in partnership with the Lousiana education department. What’s more, about 70 percent of students at the lowest level of math achievement who consistently used the tool jumped to a higher achievement level, compared with 45 percent for students who did not use Zearn.
Using a combination of small group instruction and time on the tool—a hallmark of West Carroll’s implementation of Zearn—doesn’t necessarily make Stephens’ life easier, because she has to teach each lesson twice, according to Boyte, her superintendent.
But the model allows students to become much more familiar with the content so they can come to Stephens with questions or see it presented in a different way on Zearn that they might find more engaging or easier to grasp.
“They are listening to somebody else besides me,” Stephens said. “I’m not saying I’m boring, but [Zearn’s] lesson might point out something that I didn’t. Learning it twice is never going to hurt them.”
The digital component allows students to get content that’s at the right level for them, Boyte said. With Zearn, advanced learners “can fly through and go to the next lesson. We’re not going to hold them back,” she said. “Our students who are struggling, they may not quite be here yet. They might be still in a [prior lesson] on their independent practice. But all of these skills are leading up to mastery” of grade-level concepts.
Zearn helps students get more out of their small-group time with Stephens, Boyte said.
“Heidi is very intuitive. She’s gonna see exactly what those kids need while she’s working with them,” Boyte said “The more she gets to know those students, the more she can tell if they’re being honest about what they understand, or the more she’s gonna see them struggle or see frustration on their faces. I don’t think there’s any program that’s ever going to replace a teacher.”
Helping elementary students practice math concepts
Back in the spring of 2020, with school building closures across the country, Ed Dunn was searching for a digital math program to use at home with his elementary-school-age son who “didn’t want to be tutored by his math supervisor dad.”
His solution: Dreambox, a digital tool that includes both math and literacy applications and supports about 6 million students in the United States and other countries. Dunn liked that the tool adapted easily to his son’s needs and seemed to engage him.
Shortly afterward, when Dunn became the math supervisor for the William Penn school district near Philadelphia, he helped pilot Dreambox. Unlike other platforms that might require a pretest to figure out where students are, Dreambox “starts in the middle, and then as you interact, they learn more and more about you, and that’s going to recraft your path” through the platform, Dunn said.
That’s important, Dunn emphasized, because “some of our kiddos, they have a tough time on test day or they get anxiety and they perform poorly, and that artificially puts them too far behind. ”
The platform can also differentiate subject matter for a student who is at grade level in one subject—say, geometry—but needs help in another area of math, such as statistics, Dunn said.
A study conducted in the 2021-22 school year by LearnPlatform found that elementary students in Dunn’s district who completed at least 3.5 DreamBox math lessons— roughly an hour total on the platform— improved their overall math scores. Competitors to DreamBox include IXL Learning, ST Math, Lexia Learning, Curriculum Associates, and Khan Academy.
The district primarily uses DreamBox as a math “center” at the elementary level to give students the opportunity for more practice on concepts that have already been introduced, Dunn said.
He also likes that much of the content is presented in a way that gives students context about the topics they are learning. For instance, students can learn the number line by helping pirates figure out how far to move their ship. In that task, there’s more than one way to arrive at a correct answer. That jibes with the district’s push to put more of a real-world spin on math, a goal similar to what the Humble district is seeking to accomplish at the high school level with Prisms.
In choosing DreamBox, “we already had a strategy [for teaching math] that was comprehensive and we were looking for a piece to go into that strategy,” Dunn said. “But you know, if you don’t have that comprehensive strategy, you’re not going to be successful, regardless of what the tool is.”