Three Math Studies Underscore Plans to Improve Curriculum and Teacher Practices to Raise Student Achievement

September 25, 2000
Systemwide efforts to pursue a more rigorous mathematics program have been bolstered by three studies that found that student underachievement is more closely related to the absence of a consistently implemented mathematics curriculum and the impact of ineffective teaching practices and instructional leadership than previously realized.

A math curriculum audit, and two other studies analyzing middle school mathematics and the role of teacher preparation in student algebra success, found significant variability in classroom instruction, course content, and curriculum organization from school to school and within schools.

The studies were conducted in response to a growing amount of evidence suggesting that current underachievement by students is more a reflection of the instructional program than of student ability. These problems were highlighted last year and served as the underlying thrust of the $26.2 million in new initiatives begun this year to address the needs of underachieving students.

The current initiatives include more intensive early childhood programs, including class size reductions in kindergarten through Grade 2 in high impact schools; literacy teams in every school; and extensive teacher training with staff development programs in every school. In mathematics, especially, new programs are targeting elementary school through high school.

The audit of the mathematics curriculum was initiated at the urging of Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, to identify the problems in an objective manner using outside experts. "The findings suggest that in recent years there has been little if any standardization in the implementation of the system's math curriculum and limited influence by the system on the performance of individual teachers and math departments," said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, in a report to the Board of Education being presented tonight.

"In essence, principals and teachers who are achieving high student performance are doing so largely on their own, based on the efficient use of resources and their inherent belief that all children can learn," Dr. Weast said.

The superintendent noted that school system's recent achievement of the highest average scores in 27 years in the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) reflects the immense capability of students to achieve distinctive results. More students are advancing to higher level courses, including honors courses across subjects and Algebra 2 and beyond in mathematics.

"Several of our schools are nationally recognized for their student performance," Dr. Weast said. "Indeed, there are many excellent teachers of mathematics who produce significant levels of achievement with students in courses spanning the entire field, from the primary understanding of numbers to the college-level expression of mathematical theory and its practical and scientific applications.

"Such innovative and responsive academic efforts by teachers and principals will be the models for achieving the systemwide changes necessary to propel more of our students to the heights of national and international excellence in mathematics," he said.

The studies reinforced previous acknowledgment of great variability in student achievement among and within schools of this large and complex school system, coupled with significant and pervasive gaps in student achievement by race and ethnicity. "The variability is part of a pattern that seems to go beyond mere chance and happenstance," Weast said. "A major factor in poor student performance possibly greater than student poverty and language development is the structure and implementation of the mathematics curriculum itself. This is correctable."

Key Points

The studies found that a number of barriers have impeded student success in mathematics:

* Poor attitudes and low expectations

* Tracking

* Lack of scope and sequence in the curriculum

* Staff development does not focus on system priorities

* Curriculum is not aligned with local and state assessments

One important finding of the external audit is that "tracking by ability" (in essence, tracking by "achievement") negatively impacts African American and Hispanic students. This is an important finding. The study of middle school mathematics revealed a related finding, and other previous studies have addressed similar issues.

The studies also showed that tracking can be caused, in part, by the use or misuse of data. For example, when middle schools use CRT results in isolation as a criterion for taking Algebra 1 in the eighth grade or for placement in "honors" or "regular" courses, variations in both opportunity and student performance in algebra can result.

Plan of Action

The three new studies provide the framework to implement a plan of action to improve the mathematics curriculum and the instructional practices, including staff development, instructional leadership, policy, and evaluation and assessment.

The audit and studies of classroom instruction were undertaken concurrently with several major changes already under way in the school system. A new team is now leading the mathematics program on a systemwide basis. A new staff development program and a new teacher evaluation system are addressing issues of performance standards and assessment on an individual basis. A comprehensive reorganization of the central administration, including strengthened offices focused on shared accountability, school performance, and student and community support, is aligning resources in direct support of schools. The formation of new school performance teams comprising of instructional and support staff are supporting individual schools.

The assistance of key constituencies will be critical in the development of strategies that address the needs of students and communities. Among these strategies is the current development of extended day and Saturday programs for needy students, using $250,000 in community partnership grants in addition to the $1.3 million in extended day funds available through the Collaboration Council.

Of particular help this spring will be the availability of more than $1.2 million in new state funding under the Maryland Intervention and Support Program. Authorized during last year's legislative session, this funding will be used to provide targeted academic intervention services based on student performance on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), other standardized tests, and classroom assessments.

The studies and the superintendent's report are available as PDF files at the link below.

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