The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced this month that it will be pouring $1.1 billion over the next four years into improving math teaching and learning, the start of what could be a decade-long investment in math education.
The timing is resonant: Results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that student performance in math cratered, erasing two decades of progress.
The foundation has been conducting a yearlong listening tour, reaching out to educators, researchers, and communities, and has pledged to continue doing so. (The Gates foundation provides sustaining support to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week. The media organization retains sole editorial control over its articles.)
How would veteran math teachers, district leaders, and principals spend $1.1 billion to strengthen math instruction, if it were totally up to them?
Here’s what they said:
Robbie Berry, elementary school teacher in Las Cruces, NM,
Wants: Materials for inquiry-based math instruction.
Berry is a proponent of using real-world problem solving to teach math. “The focus really should be inquiry based hands-on, with kids questioning and doing. That’s how they learn, not memorizing rote procedures and just practicing step one, step two, etcetera,” Berry said in an email. “I’m not saying we don’t do practice for procedure and fluency, but there needs to be a balance.”
She would love to see the money go toward “tools that allow students to do hands-on math via project-based learning. Sadly, there are schools that don’t even have manipulatives. Which is a significant headwind to both individual learning and community equity.”
Donna Hayward, principal of Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum, Conn.
Wants: Math intervention specialists and professional development.
“My answer is really more, more instructional staff and specifically, trained instructional staff,” Hayward said.
Her reasoning: Unlike in most other subjects, math requires students to be developmentally ready to tackle certain concepts, she said. Because students develop at different rates, one 8th grader could dive into abstract concepts and algebra, while another may need to wait until 10th grade to tackle those skills, she explained.
Trained intervention specialists with a background in math and special education could target[students] when they’re ready” to learn a particular concept, Hayward said. Such specialists could also fill in the gaps in students’ knowledge because “even if their brain has developed to the point that they can understand an abstract concept, if they don’t have all the prerequisite knowledge, they’re not going to get it . They just don’t have a foundation on which to build it.”
She would also provide “real, targeted professional development for all teachers. … Who doesn’t need new tools in their toolbox?”
Latrenda Knighten, a mathematics instructional coach in Baton Rouge, La.
Wants: Ongoing support for teachers.
Knighten likes the idea of grounding teachers in engaging, research-based math instruction. But that professional development can’t be a one-time thing, she said.
“You wouldn’t teach something to kids just one time and expect them to be an expert,” she said. It’s the same with teachers. “You go back, you practice, and you practice.” She would create communities of educators who could learn together, reflect on their work, swap ideas. And she’d add coaches: “Not just a generic coach, a math instructional coach, someone who is grounded in those practices that you want to see in the classroom.”
Teachers would really benefit from having “boots on the ground support”—someone who could help them troubleshoot or teach a demonstration lesson, Knighten said. “We have to train a cadre of teachers so that they feel comfortable that they’re able to provide instruction based on the best practices we’ve known for years.”
David Schexnaydre, principal of Harry Hurst Middle School in Destrehan, La.
Wants: Instructional materials, curriculum, professional development, all vetted by educators.
Schexnaydre said he would create materials, professional development, and curriculum, getting input from teachers and administrators at every point in the process.
“Obviously, you need engaging lessons. You need a strong curriculum. Kids want to be able to apply their learning to real-life situations, which I think is probably one of the weaknesses of some of our math [materials] right now. Like, how often does the kid ever have to go outside and find X?” he said, referring to variables in an algebraic equation.
But teacher training will be key, he added. “It really comes down to the type of embedded, ongoing high-quality professional development we give teachers so that they’re able to do this at a good level and really build the conceptual understanding for [students.]”
Bobson Wong, New York City math teacher
Wants: Smaller classes and resources for teachers to do the administrative parts of their job so they can focus on instruction.
Wong would like more effective tools to help with tasks that take his focus away from teaching. “I don’t have grading or attendance software that really works for me, because it’s not built for teachers. I don’t have the ability to send text messages to parents and have them respond to me on their cellphones. The platforms that are out there are really not very good. And they’re really not designed for teachers.” He’s also interested in software to help students get more practice with math concepts.
The other big thing on his wish list? Reducing class size. Wong has “34 students in a class for five classes a day,” and just 45 minutes a day to prepare his lessons, he said. “If I had 15 kids in that room, I could do so much more.”
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