Carolyn Jones/EdSource
Teacher Sara Liebert led a 4th grade math lesson at John Muir Elementary in San Francisco Unified.

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.”

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  1. Don 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Ms. Jones, you say scores have risen slightly in the last few years. Historically, during the first couple years of new academic standards and standardized assessments it is typical for scores to drop and then increase afterwards as teachers and students become familiar with the new regime. The results at Muir are impressive; statewide, not at all.

  2. Jackie Herrmann 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    This article is perfect. I wish the whole country could read it. Kids can do it when teachers know how to support them well.

  3. Bill Conrad 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    My head is about to explode as I read one more article about the patently obvious. Teacher content knowledge and teaching skills are the primary factors that drive improved student outcomes! Good for the Muir school team but shame on our almost profession for putting. Teachers into service who are unprepared to teach math and require school led PD in perpetuity! Transform the “colleges” of education. Deal with the root cause problem! … Read More

    My head is about to explode as I read one more article about the patently obvious. Teacher content knowledge and teaching skills are the primary factors that drive improved student outcomes! Good for the Muir school team but shame on our almost profession for putting. Teachers into service who are unprepared to teach math and require school led PD in perpetuity! Transform the “colleges” of education. Deal with the root cause problem! When will we learn this lesson and move away from a raconteur independent contractor system of teaching math by amateurs!

    Replies

    • Jeff Tillett 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      “When will we learn…”

      Perhaps when our supply of math teachers exceeds the demand. The demand is so great, and rising, that the supply is just not there, especially after the recession and resulting layoffs told then-college students to avoid teaching. The problem is not in quality of post-secondary teacher preparation, but of quantity.

    • Tad Watanabe 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      A big fallacy/myth in the US education is that somehow teachers are “made” in teacher education programs. The best they can do is to prepare good first year teachers. Professional development “in perpetuity” should be a norm. What matters is the nature and the quality of PD.

  4. Amy 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Teachers are the greatest asset in the school system, but are rarely treated as such. Great job in this district for treating their teachers like the professionals that they are.
    The early elementary years are critical for developing mathematical thinking. Unfortunately, the best teachers are often put in the higher “testing” grades leaving the less experienced or less qualified teachers to work with the younger kids. The kids end up paying for this.

  5. Becky Kloster 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Finally! This is what teachers gave been begging for. This model of professional development and testing that allows for lots of peer observations and collaboration of best practices and lessons is the only type of training that can produce such major gains in test scores with the neediest students. It is also validating to see evidence that smaller class sizes of 25 or fewer students were a major contributing factor. Teachers have been told … Read More

    Finally! This is what teachers gave been begging for. This model of professional development and testing that allows for lots of peer observations and collaboration of best practices and lessons is the only type of training that can produce such major gains in test scores with the neediest students. It is also validating to see evidence that smaller class sizes of 25 or fewer students were a major contributing factor. Teachers have been told class size does not matter, but common sense tells you that it is impossible to meet the needs of 40 students as effectively as 25 or fewer.
    Congratulations to the leadership at this site for listening to the needs of their teachers. That is ultimately what led to the teachers ability to meet the needs of their diverse students and start the path towards escalating success. 🙂

  6. el 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Is any of the material for this training available open source or online, or is it all paid workshops? I’d love to have more access to examples and some of the ideas so I can be smarter about math education, even though I’m not an educator myself. I also suspect teachers and schools would really appreciate the ability to research and learn about techniques before committing the time and resources to a particular live training.

  7. Dimitric M. Roseboro 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Great article. Kudos to the leadership, teachers, and students of John Muir Elementary School.

    Replies

    • Floyd Thursby 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      This is a perfect example of how Union Control (Thank God for the long overdue Janus decision) creates nonmarket solutions to market problems. We should pay math teachers more than others if they majored in math and had a high GPA, and we should give a bonus based on test score improvement, which is most measurable in math and English. This seniority/LIFO/tenure situation doesn’t reward or create best results.