How can schools improve middle and high school math performance? Start in fourth grade with fractions.
That’s part of the thinking of a new $535,000, three-year federal grant that aims to help teachers in several South Sound school districts improve their teaching of fractions, percentages and other math fundamentals.
More than 320 teachers and student teachers could receive training in weeklong summer institutes and additional sessions during the school year under a grant that was recently awarded to University Place, Fife and Peninsula school districts and the University of Washington Tacoma.
University Place schools will be the lead partner and manager of the “Math: Getting It” project. Other districts that could receive training include Franklin Pierce, Puyallup, Steilacoom and Sumner.
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The grant name stems from the all-too-familiar phenomenon of kids who no longer “get” math once they start studying fractions and other pre-algebraic concepts.
UP has worked the past two years to beef up teachers’ knowledge of math and how to teach it. Educators in the 5,400-student district found junior high and high school struggles with algebra are typically rooted in earlier struggles with fractions, decimals, percentages and other so-called “rational numbers.”
Schools generally introduce fractions and rational numbers around the fourth grade. The problem is that schools don’t allow enough time to master the concept, district assessment coordinator Jeff Loupas said.
“A kid might see 27/82nds, but they don’t have an innate sense of that value,” Loupas said.
Children who are barely proficient at arithmetic fall further behind.
The grant proposal cites the dramatic drop in test scores from third to 10th grades in Fife, Peninsula and University Place. In 2008, three-quarters of third-graders in the districts met standard on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in math; in 10th grade, the pass rate fell to just under 57 percent.
Algebra, generally taken in eighth or ninth grade, has become a huge dividing point for student success, UP Superintendent Patti Banks said. “Students get discouraged about their prospects for going to college if they don’t pass algebra,” she said.
Before algebra, kids can memorize how to arrive at answers, Loupas said. However, they need to understand the concepts to apply them in algebra.
Under the grant, teachers will learn such techniques as how to analyze student thinking in math. Some training will bolster teachers’ own math knowledge. Less than a quarter of surveyed kindergarten through seventh-grade teachers in UP, Fife and Peninsula had “strong confidence in their ability to teach an array of six fraction and decimal skills,” the grant proposal said.
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694