PARIS — Math programs were updated. Professional development was increased. New teachers were hired. Intervention labs were established. Veteran teachers received more training and support.
And yet, over the years, SAD 17 mathematics scores were generally not improving.
“I looked at our data and couldn’t figure out why we’re flat” Oxford Hills School District Superintendent Rick Colpitts said. “We’re hiring the best teachers.”
The problem wasn’t the teachers but more likely their mathematics training, said Colpitts. There was a recognition that many, if not most, teachers certified to teach students in grades kindergarten through six, were trained as generalists.
Many lacked a mathematics background to confidently lead their students to proficiency in what has become an increasingly complex state and federal skill standard.
Colpitts said a survey of the district’s new staff (hired in the 2012-2013 school year) added further support to the theory when teachers were asked to identify their strengths in either math or literacy
“ While nearly all said they would do a good job teaching in either role, 98 percent said they felt stronger in the field of literacy and they had received more training in college in the field of literacy,” Colpitts said.
But, he said, they would also say, “I can’t do math.”
In turn the superintendent had to ask himself, “What can we do about this?”
The answer came in the form of a mathematics coaching program initiated by Colpitts with the University of Maine at Farmington and supported by the Maine Department of Education. The program is intended to not only improve teacher’s methodology, but improve their confidence when it comes to teaching math.
The Maine Mathematics Coaching Project, is a two-year financial commitment – $6,000 the first year and $5,000 in year two – between the Oxford Hills Comprehensive School District, the University of Maine at Farmington and the Maine Department of Education.
The program is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, Colpitts said.
The project has been designed to support districts and educators seeking to improve the quality of teaching and learning in mathematics.
Its goals are to prepare students to meet career and college mathematics demands; provide teachers with high quality mathematics professional development and to increase interest, engagement and self-efficacy in mathematics for students and teachers.
Sandra MacArthur, directer of educational outreach at the University of Maine at Farmington’s Office of Graduate Studies, said the program has attracted school districts from Millinocket to Saco, including SAD 17, to participate in the pilot program. A cap of 15 coaches were selected from 11 school districts.
SAD 17 has sent two district teachers – Amy Bru and Nathan Merrill, both elementary-level math interventionists – to be trained at the University as coaches in a two-year program.
Eventually the coaches may team teach or help identify math goals, observe a teacher and offer feedback, help plan a lesson, examine student tests and identify gaps in student knowledge.
“It’s a great working collaborative with local districts and the Department of Education,” she said.
MacArthur said an adjunct faculty member who hold a Master’s Degree and is a published author of several books of mathematics, was hired to be the University’s coach.
She will go into the district coaches’ classroom four times during each academic year to review the coach candidates enrolled in the program. Additionally an assistant professor at the University is teaching the coaches.
What sets the program apart from any other in the country is the requirement that the school principal, curriculum coordinator and superintendent sign on to the program and the teacher’s application, MacArthur said.
Colpitts said the elementary generalists are expected to gain both instructional practise and content knowledge through their participation in the program.
Bru said she and Merrill are taking courses both online and face-to-face components.
“Throughout these courses, we are learning how to provide professional development for teachers right at school as they continually seek to improve their teaching practices and their own math knowledge,” Bru said. “We will function as thinking partners and resources for teachers during planning, implementation and reflection on math lessons and students’ mathematical learning.”
As part of her work, Bru said she and Merrill will also coordinate with the district’s literacy coaches, administrators and leadership teams to implement methods that research shows improve student performance.
Additionally, there will also be continued professional development to support the program goals, said Curriculum Director Heather Manchester.
“In order to teach students to think flexibly and solve a variety of rich problems, teachers themselves must have a deep understanding of the math and how to break it apart to diagnose and correct students’ misconceptions,” Bru said.
And that, she said, can be a problem for many teachers – particularly primary grade teachers – who have largely learned “skill and drill” math, with a lot of memorization and little or no concept development.
In the K-8 certification process, only six semester hours of mathematics is required for conditional teacher certification in the K-8 level, according to the Department of Education.
Bru, who majored in the health care profession, but ended up teaching, said she was blessed in school with excellent math teachers and was able to feel successful and confident in math.
“When I went to college, I was intending to major in a health care profession, so I took a lot of math-based science classes. My parents are both teachers, and eventually my heart pulled me to teaching,” she said of her major in elementary education.
She began her career as a high school Algebra teacher at a private alternative school.
“Many of the students at that school had been previously unsuccessful at other schools, so I had a lot of practice analyzing students’ math learning, and also had a chance to see what understandings need to be developed early on to prepare students for higher level math such as Algebra,” she said.
Bru said she and Merrill are looking forward to working with their colleagues in an effort to improve their performance in the classroom, which in turn will improve students’ work.
Bru had high praise for the classroom teachers calling them “absolutely amazing” with regard to how hard they work, how much they care and how much they do every single day.
“They (teachers) face a lot of challenges along the way, and they need support and professional development that is ongoing and embedded into their regular schedule,” Bru said.
Bru said the coaches are hoping to create a school culture that views math as exciting and fun.
“Math opens doors to opportunities for students’ futures, and we want our students to have every opportunity,” she said.