Imagine living in a school district that offers the best math education in the state – that not only equips all students to be “high-school ready,” but also trains students to be exceptional math thinkers. Imagine living in a district that people flock to from all over the area. What would it mean to aim for the highest possible achievement for every single one of our students?
We and many other parents have been encouraged by the immediate engagement of Superintendent Paul Goren and his team, and their interest in the issues the District faces. There is clearly diligent discovery and creative thinking taking place to build a longer term strategic plan.
At the same time, we believe there is opportunity for immediate action in math education. We urge Dr. Goren to move quickly – and while his appointment is new, our District’s issues around math education are not.
The reality is D65 math test scores are in decline.1 The achievement gap in math remains persistent.2 Since 2007, D65 has followed a policy of “differentiated” math instruction which attempts to teach in a manner that meets the needs of the full range of abilities within a single class setting. In other words, the current approach to differentiation is failing for some struggling students. At the other end, many stronger math students are not offered instruction that would enable them to advance to the level of their ability.
The good news is there are many bright spots of promising or effective differentiation for all types of learners throughout the District. For instance, individual teachers are using innovative online self-paced math programs that adjust as students learn such as Front Row, IXL, Sumdog, and EPGY. But how do teachers across the District find out about successful innovations like this? And what else can the District do this school year?
Math Matters recently shared several suggestions with the District that highlight ways to make differentiation more effective for all learners.
First, create a math differentiation guidance memo that 1) defines the resources currently available to use in all classrooms today; 2) gives explicit permission and direction for teachers to continue innovating in math differentiation, including using educational technology programs (beyond Everyday Math Online) that enable students to progress at their own pace; and 3) asks teachers to deliver appropriate math differentiation when parents or students request it, including providing more meaningful homework assignments. Math Matters strongly feels that principals must be accountable to deliver these changes starting in January.
Second, math instructional specialists should be deployed to guide differentiation, and math fluency tutors enlisted to assist struggling students, possibly in partnership with Northwestern or other area colleges.
Finally, we suggest the District immediately work with teachers to structure and run experiments with different teaching approaches. This could include team teaching, flexible ability grouping, and more fluid approaches that encourage appropriate cohorts regardless of student age. Flexible ability grouping, not to be confused with tracking, shows great potential. In 2013, researchers found that sorting was found to produce significantly positive effects in both reading and math students across the score distribution – in other words, for both high and low achievers.3
Implementing some of the above suggestions in the immediate term would offer quick, real-life experience that can help guide longer term strategy and “kick the tires” on ideas and innovations, both new and old. The risks and downsides seem to be minimal, and the opportunity for learning and progress significant.
In the longer term, Math Matters believes that the new strategic plan should include an evaluation of Everyday Math and Connected Math, and benchmark them against other leading curricula, particularly for their strengths in differentiation, professional development and digital sophistication. And ongoing efforts to coordinate between D65 and D202 should be strengthened to ensure high school readiness for all and a seamless transition into high school math.
With Dr. Goren at the helm, this is a pivotal time. Math Matters parents urge our district leadership to aim high and set ambitious goals for math success, and to move quickly now while planning thoughtfully for the longer term. It’s time to make math education succeed for every child, every day, whatever it takes.
1. Illinois Report Card. http://www.illinoisreportcard.com/District.aspx?source=Trends&source2=ISAT&Districtid=05016065004.
2. The D65 2013 Achievement and Accountability Report showed that 70 percent of a cohort of students who were in the bottom quartile in 3rd grade (2008) remained in the bottom quartile as graduating eighth graders (2013). Available at http://www.district65.net.
3. Does Sorting Students Improve Scores? An Analysis of Class Composition, Courtney A. Collins, Li Gan, NBER Working Paper No. 18848, February 2013, http://www.nber.org/papers/w18848.
Submitted by Jennifer Phillips, on Behalf of District 65 Math Matters Parents
District 65 Math Matters
D65 Math Matters was launched in November 2013 as a forum for parents to discuss math education and generate ideas to make it stronger for all types of learners. It is an independent parent-led organization and not affiliated with Evanston-Skokie School District 65 or the District 65 Council of PTAs. There are over 150 parents (and growing) from across the District on the email list. D65 Math Matters parents meet periodically to discuss math education issues such as differentiation, curriculum, acceleration, educational technology and more. Parents have spoken at several school board meetings about math and have written parent-perspective memos to District administrators on math acceleration and math differentiation. These memos and an email sign up are available at www.d65mathmatters.weebly.com.