One elementary school in California says it has found the key to turning around persistently stagnant math scores: Heavy investment in teacher preparation, to improve not only classroom instruction but also the overall climate of the school.
San Francisco Unified’s John Muir Elementary, where almost all students are low-income, African-American or Latino, used grant money from the district to hire substitutes so every teacher could be freed up to participate in Common Core math training. Teachers visited other schools, attended workshops, read up on the latest teaching techniques and critiqued each other. Eleven teachers even went to Japan to learn how math is taught there.
After teachers began implementing what they learned, John Muir Elementary doubled its math scores in just three years on the Smarter Balanced assessments, the standardized tests on Common Core math and English that California students in certain grades take each spring. In 2014-15, only 18 percent of students met or exceeded the state math standards. In 2016-17, 35 percent did.
The improvement for African-American students was especially dramatic. Three years ago, just 10 percent met or exceeded the standards. Last year, 43 percent did. Latino student scores also improved, especially among the lowest achievers: Three years ago almost half scored in the lowest bracket, “standards not met.” But by 2016-17 the number shrunk to 25 percent — about equal to the statewide average.
“It feels fantastic,” said principal Shawn Mansager. “It weighs on you, seeing your kids consistently not meet standards. To see big growth like this re-affirms we can give ourselves a pat on the back. I’m incredibly proud of our students and teachers — they’ve worked very hard.”
John Muir Elementary is in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood, once a predominantly African-American enclave but now mostly white. The school, however, is almost entirely African-American and Latino. Students come from throughout the city and even from the East Bay, commuting with parents who work in the neighborhood, Mansager said.
John Muir’s struggles with math achievement are not unique. Statewide, only 38 percent of students met or exceeded the math standards — representing only a slight improvement over student scores in the first year the test was administered in the spring of 2015. The scores are even lower for African-American and Latino students.
Failure to master math early on can have lifelong consequences. If students lag in math in elementary and middle school, they’re less likely to be prepared for the more advanced math courses required for graduating from high school or college.
Even with the improvements at John Muir, his students’ scores are still unacceptable, Mansager said.
“We’re starting to see a turnaround but we have a long way to go,” he said. “I think we’ll get there. If you have a passion for it and if you believe, you can build a culture and hopefully make these changes long-term.”
Statewide, Asian students performed the highest of all groups on the Smarter Balanced math tests. Almost 73 percent met or exceeded the standards last year. Fifty-three percent of white students did. Latino and African-American students trailed, at 25 and 19 percent respectively.
That disparity among student groups is even more pronounced in San Francisco Unified, where white and Asian students met or exceeded the standards at more than three times the rate of their Latino peers and more than five times the rate of their African-American peers on the 2016-17 Smarter Balanced math test. The achievement gap has persisted in most schools around the state, even as scores across all demographic groups have risen slightly in the past few years.
Kyndall Brown, executive director of the California Mathematics Project, a network of university math and education professors who help K-12 teachers with math instruction, said John Muir is on the right track by investing in professional development. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights identified teachers who are not fully prepared to teach as math as a major factor in the achievement gap and poor student performance.
“What we’ve found is that teachers matter more than anything,” Brown said. Schools with large numbers of low-income students “tend to have the least qualified teachers. Professional development is crucial. Classroom support is crucial. You want to help the teachers struggling the most … If professional development was adequately funded, we would see a huge shift in math scores and learning.”
Large class sizes are another hindrance to achievement. Brown said that when he was teaching math in Los Angeles, he often had 40 students in a classroom, leading to a chaotic atmosphere where it was almost impossible to pay sufficient attention individual students.
John Muir’s average class sizes are under 25 for every grade, according to the 2016-17 School Accountability Report Card.
At John Muir, teachers conduct their classes fundamentally differently than they did before as a result of the professional development they’ve received, Mansager said.
On a recent morning, 4th-grade teacher Sara Liebert led a multiplication lesson with almost no lecturing or standing in front of the class. Instead, she wrote “120” on the whiteboard and asked students how many ways they could multiply numbers to reach that product.
While they debated among themselves and penciled equations on scratch paper, Liebert roamed from table to table, checking their progress and writing correct answers on the board.
Then she had them do the same exercise with “360” and “720,” so they could see the links between the numbers. At the end of the 45-minute lesson, most of the students could easily decipher the jumble of 3s, 5s and 12s that combine to make 720.
“Five years ago the way I taught was, ‘Let me show you, let me show you,’” said Liebert, who’s been teaching for 12 years, the past seven at John Muir Elementary. “Now I’m more of a guide while they do the math themselves. You can see how much more independent they are, how much more engaged. They’re thinking like mathematicians.”
Liebert was the force behind John Muir’s transformation. She’d been frustrated for a long time with her students’ performance, as only 25 percent were meeting or exceeding the state standards, she said. But then she started using techniques suggested by math education author Marilyn Burns that focused on Common Core lesson plans. She said she saw an immediate change in her students’ comprehension. By the end of the year 60 percent of her students were meeting the standards.
“You could see the increased engagement, the advanced vocabulary. It was clear it was working,” she said. “So I wrote up a plan and asked the principal, ‘Please let me do this for the whole school.’ He said yes.”
Teacher training extended beyond math instruction. It also included a focus on improving the overall climate of the school. If students feel welcome and safe at school, their academic performance is likely to improve, Mansager said.
So he had teachers undergo training on how to encourage family involvement, be sensitive to cultural differences rooted in students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds and to praise students’ good behavior. The school now has a social worker and therapist on site, after-school programs, mentoring programs and a family room and washer and dryer available for homeless families, all intended to help children and families experiencing poverty in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the country.
“But the most important thing is just smiling,” Mansager said. “Making sure you say hi, how’s your day? And when a new student comes, try to make them feel welcome. … The climate of the school is extremely important. We have to help students see themselves in the best possible light, and have a culture at our school that doesn’t push out our black and brown kids.”
Improving math education in the early grades would help improve math scores statewide, said Vince Stewart, executive director of the California STEM Network at Children Now. Too many schools neglect elementary math in favor of reading literacy, he said, leaving many students struggling in middle school and beyond.
If students are behind in 8th grade, he said, it’s almost impossible for them to catch up in high school simply because they’re running out of time, which means they’re less likely to pass the math classes they need to prepare for college or the workplace.
“It’s incredibly important for future academic success. What we do in these early grades affects the whole pipeline,” Stewart said. “It’s especially important if we’re going to address the achievement gap.”