Q&A: School Administrators Discuss District’s Issues with Math Instruction

In Board of Education meetings, at Curriculum Nights for parents, and even in a letter home from the Wilton High School principal, school administrators have acknowledged some issues that have cropped up in the district’s math instruction. Students in some grade levels are struggling with the material and assessments have shown that there are gaps in achievement and knowledge–causing concern for parents and teachers, and anxiety for many students.

On Thursday, Feb. 8, GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve sat down with superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith, assistant superintendent for curriculum Dr. Chuck Smith, WHS assistant principal Greg Theriault, and the district’s math curriculum coordinator Trudy Denton to talk about what’s been happening, and what the district is doing about it. 

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Let’s start at the high school, what are the problems that you have been seeing? 

CS:  That’s a complex question. The big issue that we’re seeing is there are a number of students that are really struggling in the pre-calculus class. There are a number of factors that contribute to the struggle. I want to be honest–I don’t think the implementation of Math In Focus originally was done in the best way it could have been done. The teachers have been struggling with covering the curriculum content. And as a result some students do have some gaps.

GMW:  Really, we’re not talking about just this year. It stretches back systemically. So the kids who are in pre-calculus now, for them when did those gaps start?

CS:  Those students probably transitioned from Everyday Math at some point to a different curriculum.

GMW:  Five, six years ago?

CS:  I wasn’t actually here but I believe it was in 2012.

Kevin Smith:  That corresponded with the shift to Common Core Standards, at least below the algebra 2 level.

CS:  Again there are some issues there. Students who were in Everyday Math and then switched mid-career in math to a different program required some relearning in terms of what they’re learning and how they’re learning. The teachers also went through that same learning. So again we ended up with some gaps. What I think has been great is that in subsequent years the teachers have tried their best to fill in those gaps but I can’t guarantee that happened with every student.

I think we also have an issue around placement. We accelerate kids in this district in a way that I’m not sure is best for kids. And that can be our own choice as a district and it can also result from parent overrides. You lay that on top of that issue.

So we put into place this extra help [after school class] which I think is a good thing to do but I know it creates some choices for parents that they don’t like. But at this point I don’t know any other way of doing this. In the meantime, we are in the midst of a curriculum review process.

GMW:  What does that entail?

CS:  One thing I put into place when I came here is a regular curriculum review cycle, so that every five years we are stopping and taking a look at the curriculum K-to-12, seeing how it aligns to standards, gathering information from various stakeholders, identifying issues and trends, and then seeing whether or not there needs to be some revision to the curriculum.

GMW:  Gathering information from stakeholders–you mean instructional leaders, coaches, parents students, everybody? And that kind of information is done through–I assume assessments, surveys?

CS:  All of the above.

Trudy Denton:  That covers it. We’re looking at our in-class performance. Our standardized tests, our accountability test measures to look for trends and identify areas that we need to focus on.

GMW:  And that can be micro trends–let’s say, in terms of a particular teacher–to a macro trend of this particular subject area most of the kids are struggling with?

CS:  Because it involves so many stakeholders, we do tend to stay on the broader area. Individual teachers are something that we do look at but it’s done privately through the evaluation process because we have to respect teacher’s growth. Everybody’s starting from a different place, and we’re trying to make sure that we have put into place all the supports teachers need to move from where they are to where they need to be. And instructional coaching is a big part of that.

GMW:  So it’s interesting when you have to do this curriculum review at the same time as making sure that the instructional coaching–which is relatively new and working its kinks out–all of those things are happening at the same time and that’s a tough balance and a lot to take on. So the curriculum review process for particular subject matter, how long does that take? Is it a year long process?

CS:  Nothing ever stops. What we do on what we call the “research and review year” of that cycle is to step back and take a look at the entire curriculum, K-to-12. Following that we put into place a year in which we would write and pilot units of instruction and then spend the next three years reviewing and revising those. Now that doesn’t work out perfectly because we can’t write an entire curriculum over the summer so usually it’s staggered where we’re writing and piloting maybe one or two units and then, the following year, another two units.

So that usually takes two to three years before we’ve done all of it, but then two years after that we’re back up for review.

TD:  This is the first time [for a math curriculum review]. You really have to go back and reflect on the fact that five years ago we adopted the Common Core. So this has really been our first opportunity to take a look at how well those Common Core Standards have been integrated into our curriculum. English Language Arts went through the same exercise when they did their curriculum review. They were the first ones.

Now you’re engaging in that process [with math] several years after we embraced the Common Core, so it’s a good opportunity to see how well these pieces have been integrated.

GMW:  So now you’re going through this curriculum review process, which in any other situation would be something big to bite off. But now layered in is this issue that is cropping up, which for some parents and students feels very critical, especially when you’re talking about college acceptance time. How do you reconcile wanting to take this big-picture look at things but also having a budding crisis?

CS:  As we’re going through this process of reviewing and revising the curriculum we have to recognize that we’ve got kids in front of us who have been impacted by some of the choices that were made in prior years. We’re trying our best to put in place the supports they need and that’s what this [extra] class had to do. And we’re taking a very close look in particular at those senior kids who we need to send reports out on right now–and seeing whether or not the grading needs to be adjusted.

GMW:  So that’s a possibility that’s on the table?

CS:  Absolutely is.

GMW:  How quickly does that happen?

CS:  It has to happen really quickly because …

Greg Theriault:  …because grades are due now.

GMW:  So this is second quarter grades that we’re talking about?

CS:  We looked at all–midterm, second quarter and first quarter grades.

GMW:  I’m sure that’s going to be welcome news, for some parents and kids for a little stress relief. The additional instruction time is twice a week, after school. Playing devil’s advocate, some have called it “too little, too late.” Is this something that’s intended to go for the rest of the school year if needed?

CS:  Yes absolutely.

GMW:  Are there other steps being taken, in terms of one-on-one time. Are there other things, at least at the high school level, that are being implemented aside from that extra instruction?

CS:  All teachers are offering extra help. That’s just the culture here. I believe that’s an important service to offer. The high school kids do need to take advantage of that, which not everybody does.

In most cases, teachers through their classroom instruction and extra help are in the best position to address any of the gaps that the kids have. This other [after-school] program, I know kids have to make some unpleasant choices to do that but sometimes life involves unpleasant choices.

GMW:  Anything else at the high school level that you want to talk about at this point before we broaden it out to the district?

CS:  We have hired an interventionist at the high school that began this year. I don’t know that she’s seeing anybody in pre-calculus but we’re trying to address the math issues through that. We have the instructional coach in place.

KS:  Having Trudy move in to the math curriculum coordinator position is really beneficial for the entire district–especially at the high school because she is now the physical bridge between the K-8 curriculum articulation and the high school articulation. And knowing the players at the high school, working very closely with [high school math interventionist] Cindy Cherico, think that integration serves as a benefit for the entire district, but especially the high school because she can look in both directions.

GMW:  Trudy, I don’t know your background, can you lay that out for us?

TD:  I came to Wilton almost three years ago. I was a high school math teacher at Staples for 11 years prior to coming here. I taught everything from algebra 1 to AP statistics. I worked as the first instructional coach at the high school for two years before moving to this position.

GMW:  Let’s talk about self-directed learning. A lot of people have started talking about that–there’s a belief that some parents have about what’s going on with self-directed learning. You’ve got the impression that it’s like, “Okay kids go figure it out yourselves.”

CS:  There is a thing called self-directed learning, there actually is and it’s a wonderful thing–but we’re not doing it.

TD:  I think there’s a misconception around what that means. And I can explain it best by giving you an example, giving you an anecdote.

The way we hope that teachers engage with students at all levels will work along these lines. Think about it in contrast perhaps how you learned math. I know it’s certainly different from how I learned math.

If I were to walk into a room–say this could be a middle school setting. “Hi kids I have a problem today. I got these two coupons in the mail. One says $20 off and one says 20% off. I don’t know which one to use. Turn and talk to your neighbors, talk to your friends, give me a recommendation.”

So the kids turn and talk in small groups of three or four and they’re working through it. How can we work this out? How can we figure that out? As a teacher, I’m walking through the class, I’m making notes, I’m listening to what students are saying, I’m looking out for misconceptions that I might be able to support them with. What I’m looking for specifically, I want a group to talk about and explain the most obvious solution, I want them to tell me the pros and cons. I’d like them to find that point at which it doesn’t matter which coupon you use because there is a dollar amount for which it wouldn’t matter. I want them to be able to explain the most obvious choice. And then I’m going to ask the student to volunteer to talk about something that was a mistake, a misconception so that everybody can learn from that mistake.

And then if somebody’s figured out this really awesome, novel way to solve a problem then I’ll want them to feature that. Everybody has to be engaged but it’s a way to bring out the different approaches to learning.

Now think about that and contrast it with, “Okay, today we’re going to multiply decimals. This is how you multiply decimals. Here do it with me; now you do 10 practice examples.” That [first way is] what we’re trying to achieve.

GMW:  Okay. Help me understand though, how do you know that all the kids are getting it? When it was, “Here, I’m going to show you how to do this example, now let’s do these ten,” you could then check, “right, right, right, wrong, wrong, right, right.” And you have a really clinical, statistical way of saying, “I know exactly what they’ve understood and what they don’t.”

CS:  What you’re measuring there is procedural understanding, not conceptual understanding.

When kids have developed a deeper conceptual understanding, they can then apply that to different problems. And it isn’t as though we don’t have the kids do problems. We still have them do problems, later on in the lesson. But it’s not, “Learn this procedure and then see if you can mimic it.”

KS:  Just a point of clarification–Trudy’s example doesn’t capture the entirety of a lesson.

CS:  It’s a way of introducing concepts.

TD:  Two things. If I were to go around in the “old school” method and look at a sheet where students have perhaps written down the answers, that doesn’t tell me anything about what they know and what they don’t know. It tells me they got an answer. Did they lean over? Did they guess right? It doesn’t tell me anything about what they’re thinking.

Having kids engage … Now, to be sure you have to set up a structure in your class that students understand, “This is how we engage with each other.” Assigning roles and group work makes each group member responsible for the functioning of a group. So there’s a lot of layers that go in to executing a lesson like that well. Make no mistake. I think the biggest issue we’ve had–very macro globally with math instruction–is that we teach kids procedurally how to calculate something but we don’t ever teach them how to use it.

And in an example like this students are learning how to use what they learned. How does a teacher know? By walking around the room and noticing what students are doing. If you’ve planned the lesson well you know what to look for. You anticipate what the misconceptions are and you look for that. Who’s got it, who’s getting there, who’s really confused. So you’re taking notes about what students are doing. Some teachers can do it without writing it down, other teachers physically take notes.

Part of that process that is also integral to this being successful is something called “formative assessment.” Formative assessment is just taking a gauge of how students are doing–again if you’ve planned well you know what to look for. Formative assessment can be a simple question-answer exchange or it can be something written on a piece of paper. And teachers know what to look for and that’s what gives a teacher the information. Even to a far greater extent than having them replicate 15 or 20 calculations on a sheet of paper.

CS:  Kids, their role in the classroom is different. And the problem is that kids have been taught–not intentionally in the wrong way–but taught to get the right answer. And now we’re saying, there’s multiple ways to approach this. Kids want to know, because we taught them to be good students, “Tell me the way to get the right answer.”

GMW:  So conceptually, that process in the classroom is something that really is being done district-wide, whether it is pre-calculus in high school or measuring in kindergarten?

CS:  Yes.

GMW:  So like the issues you’ve been seeing in the high school, have you seen issues flares in other places in the district? I assume probably less and less at Miller-Driscoll School or in Cider Mill, but as the kids have been coming up, at Middlebrook, are there some gaps there as well?

CS:   Yes I think, the 7th grade group?

TD:  The 7th grade group is one of the groups. For some reason the change over impacted some groups in a bigger way than other groups, and it probably has something to do with specifically what was taught prior to our adopting Math in Focus and what content they learned or didn’t learn. And then maybe some of that content was missed. And it’s not necessarily uniform across four or five years. I think there’s spots where the gaps are just more prevalent than others.

CS:  The implementation at Miller-Driscoll School was odd. I wasn’t here for it but somehow I think they started with 2nd grade, then did kindergarten and then to 1st grade. So you have these three groups of kids who have very spotty and I think that’s the group that’s now in middle school.

KS:  Related to that one of our priorities, as Chuck alluded to, is around professional support. I think that’s one of the differences that’s been observed is that there wasn’t necessarily planned intensive support for our teachers as they were adopting not only a new program but a different approach. That’s very disconcerting for staff. Even more so when they don’t have that kind of support to anchor them and create the space for practice and feedback in the same way that kids need it.

Instructional coaching has gotten a lot of press in the last couple of years. That’s the district’s commitment to the best, research-based approach to providing intensive support to teachers. We chose to focus on language arts and mathematics. And we’re continuing to try to bring that to scale.

GMW:  So building on that, what other steps are you taking? The instructional coaching, the after-school instruction at the high school. But how long do you think that it’s going to take to make this better?

CS:  I don’t think there are any other quick fixes. I have high hopes that the curriculum review is going to resolve some of the issues around curriculum coverage. The appropriateness of acceleration. We even have some options about really blowing things up and doing them very differently–having maybe integrated math classes rather than the subject area classes. Depending upon where that group lands moving forward will determine how long it’s going to take us to get there.

Every year I see improvement though.

TD:  I think that’s absolutely true. I had the benefit of working at the high school for my first couple of years here. I think there’s been noticeable change for the good. You see it all through the district.

CS:  I also have to keep in mind that every teacher is in a different place. So I know I’d like to say, “Whoop! I have a little bow and it’s all fixed.” It’s never going to be that way because teachers are at different places in their journeys.

GMW:  Also in terms of the way it was rolled out, I imagine each of the grade levels also is in a different place. So that’s going to have an impact as well?

TD:  And you take a student just for example who’s accustomed to turning to their partner and talking about their math. And if they’ve been doing that every year by the time they get to middle school or high school, they’re pretty accustomed to it. The students at the high school now and many of the students at the middle school didn’t have that experience in the elementary school. So the desire to produce answers is a practice that was formed early early on and it’s tough to let go.

There are students who work to exasperation and say, “Please just tell me the formula.” We had a parent at our curriculum review committee share that she grew up learning the formulas. And she was really good at learning the formulas. It all fell apart for her when she was in grad school because she didn’t know how to apply all those formulas that she learned.

GMW:  So I guess the “control” situation right now is really the kindergarten and 1st grade in Miller-Driscoll. This is how they’re being taught, this is the environment in which they are learning. Do you see it happening much easier for them? 

CS:  We were just looking at some data for kindergarten through 3rd grade–the data in math looks really, really good.

TD:  Really strong.

KS:  To the question about, What else are we doing? That was the other piece that we introduced–[MAP testing]. It caused a lot of consternation but we pay close attention to those math score assessments to look at their curriculum, to look at curriculum implementation to identify gaps, and then to try and respond to those gaps. That’s a really important new function for us as a district that we’re committed to for that reason. So we can continue to monitor growth and achievement.

TD:  That’s another role where the coaches get involved. They work with the teachers to dissect the data and help them identify areas where they can put their extra efforts in. So that’s another way that the coaches are involved in the process.

GMW:  Assessment wise, you’re seeing the benefits at Miller-Driscoll?

CS:  Yes. I think those kids that started in kindergarten and have it consistently are doing much better.

GMW:  For parents who are concerned, whether it’s at the high school level or at any of the other buildings, if they see their child is struggling, what action should they take? What do you want them to do?

CS:  The first place to go is to the teacher and have a discussion. Again this gets complicated because sometimes parents override. Sometimes that can be a hard conversation. But if they feel their child is appropriately placed and struggling, we would start with the teacher. If they’re not getting any satisfaction, the next line would be to talk to the instructional leader or an administrator. And if they’re not satisfied there then they can come and talk to me.

But they really need to go through the chain of command.

KS:  Every teacher is best positioned to converse with the parent about a student’s relative strengths and growth areas for sure.

GMW: And in terms of the group of parents concerned around the pre-calculus issues?

CS: The high school principal might be the best place to start.

KS:  Absolutely.

CS:  I would wait until the communication comes out from the high school about what they’re doing with the grades. Because I think that’s what they want to hear.

KS:  That’s something forthcoming any day now. It might be better to wait.

GMW:  Tell me about AIM too, at Middlebrook.

CS:  We have put into place the math interventionists. We only have one in each building. We’re not able to pick up as many kids as we would like to with one interventionist. Adding a second interventionist isn’t going to get us to where we want to be either. In an intervention setting it’s very small group–a ratio of five-to-one. That’s just not going to do it.

So [Middlebrook principal] Lauren Feltz was very creative. She’s designed what I would call “large group intervention.” And the focus isn’t on remediating deficit skills. It’s more on previewing and reviewing what’s going on in the general education classroom. Trudy said it–anticipating, given what we know about students who have gone through the curriculum here, what their challenges might be in meeting the expectations of the general ed curriculum. So that particular teacher is trying to anticipate where the students are going to fall down and prepare them.

GMW:  Is that something that’s happening at each of the Middlebrook grade levels?

TD:  Yes. There’s 6th, 7th and 8th grade AIM classes.

CS:  We’re trying to target kids who fall between the 40th- and 60th percentile on math. So anybody that falls in there probably should have been invited.

TD:  Parents were approached over the summer and they were invited to have their child in the intervention classes. Some parents accepted, some parents did not.

CS:   If we have a child who’s in geometry in 8th grade who’s struggling, I’m not so sure that AIM is designed to help. But if they’re in grade level classes they should approach the administration with concerns. But if their child is at or above grade level on our assessments, that would require a conversation–I’m not quite sure a student would need AIM then. Maybe there are other issues going on around motivation or executive functioning that they could problem solve around rather than true math intervention.

GMW:  Also, to be part of that program required giving up a STRIDE class?

CS:  Yes. And I do believe she’s also offering after school support.

TD:  There are some after school help sessions associated with the AIM students.

KS:  That’s the one thing that has not changed in education over 100 years, and that’s the fixed amount of time kids are required to come to school. Unfortunately it’s about choice making–sometimes it’s an unpleasant choice.

CS:  My feeling is if you are below grade level in a core subject area, that should be your priority. It’s college and career ready. But people don’t always agree with me on that.

GMW:  Is there anything else you want to add?

KS:  I think math is not singularly Wilton’s concern. This is a national concern.

CS:  If you look at the data, math lags behind language arts across the state.

KS:  There’s an acute issue right now in pre-calculus that stems from a variety of factors. But in terms of the approach under Chuck’s leadership that the district has adopted through the curriculum review, that’s the right approach to address all of the systemic concerns and ensure fidelity to a process, pre-K-to-12 in fact. We’re obviously committed to improvement but I think, more importantly, committed to doing it the right way. Where we can accelerate the progress we’re going to, but as Chuck noted, it takes time and most districts around us are experiencing similar kinds of questions and concerns in mathematics instruction and following their own approaches. But I feel very good about it, and if there’s early return in the primary grade data then that’s affirming that process.

1 Comment

  1. ETP

    February 10, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    I read thru the entire interview. My quantitative mind is still trying to understand why this wasn’t anticipated before changing the curriculum, why aren’t there annual reviews instead of every five years, how will the school ensure remedial work is effective.

    Thanks for the article.

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