On My Soapbox About Elementary Math

I’m still digesting and processing all the great learning I had at NCTM San Diego 2019! It is truly awesome to think of all the knowledge and brainpower I was surrounded by in San Diego.

With that said, there is still something that doesn’t sit well with me, from a few years ago, that was reiterated at this conference. Steve Leinwand told a large group of coaches in a workshop I attended a couple of years ago that a mediocre K-5 education can be overcome, but 6th grade is where math really takes off. Linda Gojak echoed that in her presentation, but added that she thinks 5th grade is really that important turning point. In talking with coaches at different elementary school districts, I’m learning that various school districts de-emphasize the importance of math at K-5.

It just doesn’t sit well with me.

At the same time you’ll hear that algebra is the “gateway to college access” (WestEd, 2015), and that students who fail Algebra 1 the first time are unlikely to pass it the second time. Performing just slightly above the proficient line on the CST’s in 6th grade offered only a 50/50 chance of passing Algebra. I’m looking for similar data from SBAC assessments but haven’t seen an updated version yet. WestEd details a summer intervention between 6th and 7th grade as a support, acknowledging the limitations of such a short time frame.

But I still don’t understand! If a proficient (albeit barely) performance on our state standardized assessments only gives you a 50/50 chance at success in algebra, then why aren’t we concerned about the mathematics education of K-6? Isn’t this a huge equity issue? Who gets access to algebra, and thus college?

They don’t start learning mathematics in 6th grade. It starts in kindergarten. We can’t *assume* it started before that. Of course, in the ideal world the babies were counting everything in sight with their parents, comparing more and less, starting to subitize small quantities, etc. Their early numeracy trajectories could have started well before kindergarten. But for others, it didn’t. The opportunity gap has begun before they even stepped into their brightly colored kinder room.

I can’t accept that the choice of college is already limited upon walking through the kinder door. We have to do better than that. However, our elementary teachers are charged with the critical goal of teaching children how to read – no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. It’s hard work, stressful, and compounded by a society that doesn’t value elementary education – as demonstrated by the “teacher pay penalty” (EPI, 2018).

Is this why we give K-5 the “pass” on mediocrity in math? We just can’t burden elementary anymore?

I can’t accept that either. In the meantime, our students suffer and the opportunity gap widens. We know what is working from other countries – here is a very partial list (NCEE, n.d.):

  • Longer school days
  • Preschool
  • Early childhood focus on literacy AND numeracy
  • Ongoing teacher development and collaboration

It’s not a secret. In order to compete globally, we have to provide a stellar education from Pre-K through 12th grade. Even with the limited amount of time in American school days (this really has to be changed but it is a subject for a different day), we can’t expect even a preschool teacher to spend the entirety of every day on literacy. Early numeracy, conceptual understanding, basic fluency, and positive math interactions are critical to their secondary education. We cannot wait to focus on 6th grade – at that time they have had 6 prior years of math “mediocrity” that has potentially established math anxiety, math hatred, or math avoidance. Undoing 6 years of learning is too tall a task for a summer intervention.

Instead of accepting mediocrity, let’s invite success. The opportunity gap has already started before they walked through that kinder door. We must change that math narrative into one where the algebra gate is readily open to all, due to their stellar K-5 preparation.

2019 Goals – Intervention

I’m not sure this blog post is appropriately titled! These may still be wishes at this point, or maybe better termed focus areas for 2019. The plan is in process.

Response to Intervention

I started to title this “Intervention” but I can’t make that a focus. Because high quality first instruction is so critical, that I can’t think about intervention without making sure that I’m supporting high quality first instruction. Any time intervention comes up, I need to remind myself and others that first we teach and teach well.

So with that said, assuming excellent high quality first instruction, we can reasonably expect RTI to look like this pyramid. I like this one because it looks at academic and behavioral instruction, even though the focus of my work is generally academic. The MTSS model as explained in PBIS.org.

We cannot throw around interventions like spaghetti, hoping they stick to the wall. So my plan for 2019 is to investigate assessments that will best target our goals. In the DuFour PLC model, this would revolve around the question, “How will we know if they’ve learned it?”

Assessments we currently have in place universally in our district for K-6 ELA include:

  • Spelling Inventory
  • Fluency
  • K1 Phonemic Awareness
  • K1 Phonics

We also have a decision making tree to help decide what other assessments might help us target need. The plan for 2019 is to continue to guide thinking around these assessments, and coach teachers in understanding the results of these assessments, as well as planning for intervention based on the results.

Assessments we have in place universally in our district for K-6 Math include:

  • <This space intentionally left blank.>

So there is clearly a need to understand math assessment and intervention. The plan for 2019 then is to understand the first two PLC questions, “What do we want them to learn?” and “How do we know if they’ve learned it?” My first step in understanding is to look at two common statements I hear from teachers – “They don’t know their math facts.” and “They can’t do our work because they are low.”

For the first question, we want them to know their facts, but we don’t know if they’ve learned them. So I’m going to investigate Math Running Records in more depth, with a couple of specific classes. We will do running records for the entire class, and look at trends as well as possible interventions.

For the second question, I’m curious about how we define “low” as well as how we can have student access grade level math despite any areas of need. One of the projects I’m looking into was something Graham Fletcher brought up last summer at the Virtual Math Institute called the Georgia Numeracy Project. I’m going to adopt a couple of classes with this as well, to see how we might use the materials to specifically identify areas of intervention and thus maximize our intervention results.

Phew…and I’m just getting started on 2019 Goals. 🙂 It’s going to be a great year! Any advice on high quality first instruction or targeted intervention is welcomed in the comments!