School District advised to keep controversial math program

Fifteen years after adopting an innovative math program for elementary schools, the Anchorage School District recently called in consultants to answer the question: Why aren't students making expected gains in math?

Many people blame the program itself, Everyday Mathematics, with teaching methods that befuddle parents and get only fair-to-poor ratings from most Anchorage teachers surveyed during the past school year. It's a program that emphasizes concepts -- the why behind math -- in a nontraditional way.

The district asked a team from the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban school systems, to find out why elementary math test results are stuck at around the national average despite efforts to rise above it.

The answer, according to the consultants: It's not the program, but the way it's supported, that's dragging down achievement.

Among the findings and recommendations:

• From the beginning, the district didn't conduct enough training so teachers, principals and parents could get the reasoning behind the program.

That lack of understanding has persisted over the years due to teacher turnover.

• There's insufficient training even now for new teachers and teachers new to their grade levels -- just two half-day sessions.

• Except for in certain schools, veteran elementary school teachers don't have an established way to get support in teaching math, either.

• The math program needs to be lined up more closely with state standards, on which state achievement tests are based. These are the tests that judge whether a student is proficient, advanced, or not proficient.

Local math standards, which don't match either the state ones or the math text, should be dropped.

• Teachers should spend more time teaching math than they do now, and some part of the time should be devoted to math facts, such as multiplication.

School Board President Gretchen Guess said the board will need to make a decision on whether to keep Everyday Math, which gets critical reviews from many parents who find it confusing and from a significant number of teachers as well.

The consultants include people from other districts that have faced some of the same issues and have significantly improved math performance in their own districts. Among them: the math directors for Austin, Texas, and Boston schools, the research director from Albuquerque, N.M., and the instruction director from Richmond, Va.

The study team visited Anchorage last November, conducted teacher and principal surveys earlier this year, and analyzed a lot of data and documents on test results and demographics of the Anchorage kids. The study cost only about $26,000 because the experts from other school districts volunteered their time.

The 147-page study was thoughtful and thorough, said Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau.

Elementary teachers are weaker, in general, in math and science than other subjects, Comeau said in an interview.

A teacher survey that accompanied the math report bears that out for math, at least. The survey of 607 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Anchorage teachers who teach math showed that just 11 percent of them majored or minored in math.

Forty percent of the teachers said they had not taken any math classes beyond those required for a degree.

Comeau mentioned two of many recommendations she's interested in: A system of "just-in-time" teacher training -- teachers would get training on particular math concepts just before teaching a unit; and a "parent university" like the Boston school district sets up to explain the math program.

"I really believe we dropped the ball for outreach," said Comeau.

School Board President Guess said the same thing. "We didn't explain it to the parents -- the importance of it, and how you can help your child with it."

Though math achievement has been flat, the district's performance is still relatively high -- around the national average, and better than most urban districts, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Anchorage students do as well or better in math than students statewide, he said.

Districts like Anchorage that are at a pretty high level already typically have trouble pushing beyond the national average, he said.

A high rate of transient kids -- students moving in and out of the district, maybe living in a village for a while, then returning to Anchorage -- makes it harder to move the district up a notch, the consultants said.

There's also a gap between the lower performance of students for whom English is a second language, and the other students, who do better.

But the experts found that students who stayed in the district for three consecutive years -- including English-language learners -- showed substantial improvement in math.

In general, though, "student achievement in math has not moved appreciably in the last three years," said Casserly.

An entire chapter of the Great City Schools report is devoted to recommendations, which range from finding federal money for math coaches to setting higher goals for math.

Following up with changes to the way district does some things will be a multi-year project, Comeau said. But she intends to lay out a plan within the next five or six weeks.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.

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