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The Math Problem

October 28, 2013

Since I became principal of North Smithfield High School five years ago, the topic that has triggered the most consistent discussion, action and debate has been math.  In those years our team, which has included our curriculum director, department chairperson and teachers, have worked diligently to collect and analyze data, identify gaps in our curriculum and instruction, and implement new programs and interventions geared towards ensuring that all students are able to meet at least the minimum requirements for graduation.  The change effort has been gradual, and the results have been positive, but underwhelming.  While our results in English Language Arts dramatically grew after our direct interventions, math has seen a slower, less noteworthy level of growth.

At the high school level, the “math problem” is perhaps the most challenging, most frustrating, yet also most exhilarating problem facing principals and teachers today.  Students are required to demonstrate a minimum level of math (and reading) proficiency on state tests in order to graduate.  Unlike reading, however, which is a skill that is reinforced in every class, every day, math instruction rests solely on the shoulders of a single teacher each year of high school.  While students practice reading (whether explicitly or implicitly) throughout the school day, they literally interrupt their school day for roughly 50 minutes to practice their math, a discipline that requires a unique level of precision, focus and attention to detail.

Similarly, high school students typically see math as one of, if not the, most challenging subject matter in their schedule.  Students often struggle to see the point of math, and they often accept as a fact that they “are no good at math” (which I have always found somewhat interesting- in that you would rarely, if ever, hear a student or parent speak so bluntly about being “no good at reading”).  Students often view math with a fixed mindset- that they are either good at it or not good at it- with individuals possessing little ability to improve themselves if they are not good.  They also typically express disillusionment with why they have to take math- that they “will never have to use this information”.

These are real challenges facing high school educators today.  Math is challenging in its own respect.  It poses an even greater problem when teachers have to not only teach the challenging content, but also have build the confidence of students and parents, make up for gaps in their previous experiences, and sell students on the relevance of the material.  Despite these barriers, I believe they can be overcome.  To do this I have a few helpful suggestions:

1) Schools and families must be partners in the process.  When schools and parents bicker unnecessarily, students suffer.  Schools must make effort to reach out to parents and engage them in the discussion about math standards, curriculum, instruction, expectations and resources.  It is vitally important for schools to establish these lines of communication, and for parents to reciprocate by supporting teachers and encouraging students to work hard and believe in themselves.

2) Teachers must be receptive to feedback about their teaching and must be willing to examine data, utilize best practice instructional strategies and commit to explicitly teaching the standards embedded in each course.

3) Student attitudes towards math must be shifted through adult reinforcement of the fact that math is an important skill that is cultivated through hard work, discipline and focus.  Students (especially at the high school level) also must be explicitly shown how the math they are learning applies in different contexts.

4) School and district leaders must embrace this challenge and effectively communicate and facilitate the change process to all stakeholders.  Leaders must support teachers by providing them with time and resources needed to fully buy in to the necessary changes.  Leaders must also remain visible and accountable to parents and students through effective communication.

I believe the “math problem” at the high school to be as a much a problem about attitude as it is about math.  The sooner we are able to shift attitudes, and the sooner we all get on the same page with where we are going and how we are getting there, the sooner I believe we will see truly remarkable results.  I am excited to take on this problem, and I am confident that despite the difficulties that exist, we will be successful.  Have a great week!

-Rob

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