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On May 19 School District 65 administrators presented three initiatives to the School Board to improve student achievement at the middle schools, all of which will be implemented this coming school year. The District will adopt new math textbooks for the middle schools and evaluate the effectiveness of the textbooks in a three-year pilot program; it will implement block scheduling in the middle schools; and it will provide workshops for teachers to improve instruction in reading and language arts.

Assistant Superintendent Susan Schultz said the math textbook adoption represented the work of the entire middle school math department. “Every middle school math teacher has been involved and worked hard to examine approaches and new materials,” she said.

A written report submitted to the Board said the initiatives address recommendations made in the Middle School Study prepared in February 2006.

The School Board approved the adoption of new math textbooks by a 6 to 0 vote on May 19. The other initiatives do not require Board approval.

New Math Textbooks

Currently the District uses “Everyday Mathematics” at the kindergarten through sixth-grade levels and “Gateways to Algebra and Geometry” at seventh and eighth grade. In addition, teachers use “Transitions Mathematics” at sixth grade, as a supplement to “Everyday Mathematics.”

Suzanne Farrand, math and gifted coordinator for the District, said the middle school math teachers agreed that the Gateways textbooks, which were last updated in 1993, “are inadequate and need to be replaced.” She said the teachers reviewed four textbooks – all of which are “research-based” – to replace “Gateways.” She explained that research-based textbooks are based on curriculum standards adopted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and set forth what a math curriculum should look like in the 21st Century.

After a year-long study, teachers narrowed the field down to two textbooks and recommended that the District use a three-year pilot study to determine which one the District should use on an ongoing basis. “The recommended pilot program is largely because the middle school math teachers could not reach absolute consensus,” said Ms. Farrand. “Teachers felt we needed experience to determine which would be the best textbook to use District-wide.”

The report states the two textbooks are consistent in content and both contain a considerable amount of guidance for differentiated instruction, but the “Connected Math Project” textbook series is “more student-centered and relies more on problem-solving to teach concepts;” and the “MathThematics” textbook series is “more teacher-led and relies more on explicit instruction to expand student knowledge.”

Ms. Farrand said effective instruction combines the two approaches, student-centered and teacher-led. On a spectrum of the two approaches, she said, “Both of the textbooks are clumped toward the student-driven. Both are investigative driven. There’s no clear research on what is the best approach.”

“Piloting both textbooks will allow us to learn what mix of approaches will work best with our students in our schools and will provide guidance for the next curriculum revision/textbook adoption cycle,” she said.

The District will pilot the “Connected Math” textbook at Bessie Rhodes, King Lab and Nichols at grades six through eight. The “MathThematics” textbook will be piloted at Haven at grades six through eight. Ms. Farrand said, “The math teachers basically selected the texts they wanted to use in their schools.”

The report says another question is whether or not it is better to continue using the “Everyday Math” series at grade 6 (and thus use the series at the K-6 grade levels), or to implement the new “Connected Math” and “MathThematics” textbooks at sixth grade (and thus use those texts at the 6-8 grade levels). To obtain information to answer this question, the District will have a third pilot at Chute School, where “Everyday Mathematics” will continue to be used at sixth grade and the new “MathThematics” textbook will be used at seventh and eighth grades.

Administrators and math teachers will evaluate the pilot program annually. Ms. Farrand said, “On an annual basis we will be looking at not only student achievement, but changes in teacher attitudes and teacher practices, and student attitudes and student behavior.” She added, “One of the primary things we will be looking at is how these textbooks help us as teachers engage students, so that they will be successful.”

The report says the “Connected Math” textbook is designed as a possible first-year algebra course, and that it may be used, with the addition of a few topics, to teach algebra, equivalent to the D65-ETHS 1 Algebra Regular course. The “MathThematics” textbook, however, is not designed as a possible first-year algebra course. One task of the pilot program will be to determine whether the “MathThematics” textbook, appropriately supplemented, can serve as a 1 Algebra text.

There will be no change to the accelerated paths, said Ms. Farrand. “The goal is to have more students enrolled in an algebra course at grade 8.”

Block Scheduling

Administrators plan to implement block scheduling at the middle schools, which will schedule certain courses to be taught for two periods in a row, for 75 or 80 minutes, rather than for a 37- or 40- minute period. Ms. Schultz said “Block scheduling is a way to use instructional time effectively and efficiently.”

Ms. Schultz said block schedules would allow the middle schools to increase the instructional time for math, which textbook publishers say should be at least 60 minutes a day. She also said, “There’s a great advantage to teaching science and social studies in a block.” She added that teachers could differentiate instruction more effectively in class periods that extended for 75 minutes.

Ellen Fogelberg, director of literacy, said there would be more opportunities for students to read and write in longer class periods. “I see this as a wonderful opportunity to develop literacy opportunities,” she said.

Fred Hunter, assistant principal at Haven Middle School, said teachers at Haven have been talking about block scheduling for three years. “It provides flexibililty,” he said. “Our staff is very excited about the opportunity to have more time for classes.”

Ms. Schultz said, “There are many models for block scheduling.” Middle school principals are working with consultants to plan block schedules for their schools, Ms. Schultz said. “Teachers are excited about this opportunity.”

Literacy Development

Ms. Fogelberg said the District will offer a five-day workshop in August to help teachers improve their instructional strategies to reach a range of learners in the classroom. She said the workshop is designed for 25 teachers and “we have almost a full class.”

She said she hoped the success of this workshop will lead to offering similar workshops a few times during the school year.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...