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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

Meeting a Math Achievement Crisis

An urban community spotlighted declining math achievement—and students' performance soared.

Meeting a Math Achievement Crisis- thumbnail
When the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School received our students' scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in fall 2003, we realized we had a problem. Although student scores in the English/language arts portion of the test reflected the state's required level of adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act, student math scores across all grade levels fell far short of this goal. On the math portion of the MCAS, 67 percent of Banneker's 8th graders scored in the “Warning” category; among 6th graders, only 6 percent scored as “Proficient.” More than half of our students in all grade levels tested (4th, 6th, and 8th) scored in the “Warning” group. Math achievement at Banneker was clearly in crisis.
Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three miles from downtown Boston, the Benjamin Banneker Charter School serves approximately 330 K–8th grade students. The school was founded in 1995 for students of color and other minority students in and around the Cambridge area, with a focus on math, science, and technology. In recent years, many Haitian Creole-speaking students and students from other neighborhoods have enrolled in the school. Today, more than 95 percent of Banneker students are children of color, and more than 75 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The school has a high student mobility rate, and half of the students speak a language other than English at home. Academic achievement at Banneker is an ongoing challenge.
Banneker's low standardized test scores reflected a common reality in U.S. urban schools, and we immediately recognized the trend as evidence of the achievement gap. Less clear was what we should do in response to these low scores. Why was student achievement in math continuing to decline, despite the efforts we had been making to raise it? The question was crucial because the problem threatened the existence of Banneker: 2003 was the fifth consecutive year in which the school had failed to meet its adequate yearly progress target in math. According to Massachusetts's education reform policy, the school would now be placed in the category of “Corrective Action.” Significant change was required—and quickly.

Starting With the Problem

One thing was now painfully clear: To get a different result, we would have to chart a different course. Banneker needed to go back to the drawing board.
We decided that the way to begin designing an action plan for improving math achievement was to reexamine the cause of low math scores at Banneker. We asked our classroom teachers, as the people best positioned to know the answer, to identify some of the probable causes for Banneker students' poor math achievement.
  • Students don't have the basic math skills they need.
  • Students don't have the language skills or reading comprehension they need for learning in math.
  • Student attitude is not conducive to learning in math.
  • Behavior management issues interrupt instruction.
  • What can we do in our classrooms to effectively build basic math and language skills?
  • What instructional approaches might we take, given the wide range of student abilities in our classrooms?
  • What can we do to encourage students to strive for success and to make math more interesting to students?
  • What can we do to manage disruptive behavior that occurs during instruction?
Teachers and administrators confronted these questions individually and in teams. The questions guided us in designing a schoolwide, multifaceted, and highly visible campaign to raise math achievement across all grade levels at Banneker.

Bringing the Community on Board

As staff members embarked on this reflective work, we took the crucial next step of sharing our MCAS math scores with parents and students and enlisting their support. During a school open house in October, we presented our math achievement problem, explained its relationship to the achievement gap, and made clear that this was not the problem of any individual student or teacher but that it was a whole community issue. As a community problem, we told parents, our low student math scores required a community response.
We shared with parents the probable causes of low achievement that we had identified. The Banneker principal explained to parents that we would be taking a new approach in teaching math—and we asked students and parents to take a new approach in learning math. We suggested that students set personal math goals, listen more carefully and quietly during math instruction, ask questions, and diligently complete math homework. We urged parents to ask their children about their math progress, encourage them to work hard, help their children with math homework, and call attention to the importance of math in daily adult life.
This frank discussion created an awareness of our problem and a sense of urgency about its solution. Teachers and parents rallied and pledged to increase the percentage of students performing at the “Proficient” level on the mathematics MCAS. We engaged the entire Banneker community and launched our campaign, embarking on a year that would prove successful in more ways than we intended.

Math Everywhere

In October and November, we worked collaboratively to design an approach and identify strategies for our math achievement campaign. The idea of creating a campaign and naming it as such had taken hold in September with our recognition that improving math performance would require a different approach. The math team, which was made up of one teacher from each grade level, coined the phrase “Math Everywhere” as a reminder that math is everywhere and that Banneker's highest priority as a school that year was to bring math into all students' experiences at school.
  • To become proficient in math, mastering grade-level skills and concepts.
  • To improve reading and writing skills and increase comprehension of math word problems.
  • To acquire and demonstrate a positive attitude toward math learning.
  • Leadership would provide classroom teachers with math-related guidance, tools, and resources and would build math expertise within the school;
  • Teachers would increase the amount of time they devoted to teaching math and assessing progress;
  • Teachers would implement new instructional approaches to math; and
  • The Banneker community as a whole would commit to improved student achievement in math in 2003–2004.

Our Top Strategies

Throughout the year, we continued to identify actions and activities that would help achieve our goals for student improvement. We came up with many innovative strategies, a sampling of which follows, that were suggested, implemented, and owned by all stakeholders at Banneker School. Lack of time and money were two hurdles we faced. Fortunately, the school has a high level of autonomy within our district, so our principal had the authority to quickly decide on and implement many changes that reduced these obstacles.

Reaching Beyond the Classroom

Monthly math contests. To address students' lack of engagement in math, teachers initiated monthly math contests. Each month, three different math challenges—one for grades K–3, one for grades 4–6, and one for grades 7–8—were sent home. Teachers encouraged students and parents to work on these challenges together. The principal awarded all participants a certificate of participation, and one participant (chosen at random from those who answered correctly) won a prize. Each month, the number of students taking part increased—from 90 students in the first contest to 125 by June.
Family Math Night. In the winter, Banneker held an interactive Family Math Night for parents to see what their children were learning. At activity stations throughout the building, teachers and students led hands-on math activities. The evening culminated with a talk by our math coach, who reminded parents of the math they use every day, from balancing checkbooks to shopping for mortgage interest rates, and asked parents to list math topics that they would like future workshops to cover. This was one of the most successful curriculum nights Banneker has ever had.
Parent academic liaison. We created this new staff role at Banneker to better communicate with parents about our math curriculum and to enlist their support, paying a staff member a small stipend to serve as our parent academic liaison. This liaison attended monthly parent meetings, ensuring that math and other academic issues were standing agenda items. She brought parents sample materials and test questions and arranged for math teachers to attend parent meetings with examples of math problems and suggestions for working with students at home. This liaison also worked directly with parents, coaching them in ways to help with homework and better support their children in math.
Math tutoring. We organized math tutoring during and after school for students having particular difficulties. To find tutors, we reached out to the Banneker community—school board members, teachers, and administrative staff—and people from each group volunteered, reflecting the Banneker community at its best.

Supports for Teachers

Math coach. Our Leadership Team hired a full-time math coach to work with teachers in the classroom. The math coach provides specialized support for teachers and students, and observes teachers in their classrooms and offers feedback. The math coach encouraged one teacher who was devoting scads of time to numeration (out of fear that students didn't “get it”) to instead expose students to broader elements of the curriculum and let them wrestle with math challenges, advice the teacher found invaluable. We also redirected school funds to hire an additional teaching assistant specifically for math.
Math-focused professional development. We invested in math-related professional development opportunities for our teachers, several of whom attended Singapore Math workshops (detailing strategies that have enhanced math achievement in Singapore). We developed a partnership with math teachers from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, which received a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Education to conduct a summer institute for teachers focused on geometry and measurement.

Changes in Instruction

Increased instructional time. From the start, Banneker staff members recognized that the level of progress we expected would demand more instructional time in math. Math teachers reviewed student schedules and—by eliminating periods for foreign language or study hall—increased math instruction for all students by two periods each week.
Flexible groupings. Many teachers turned to flexible groupings as an effective way to address students' varying math levels. Instituting flexible groups permits teachers to give able students more challenging work and to offer weaker students small-group instruction. Teachers continually reconfigure groups, depending on the topic and the students' prior knowledge and skills. This practice prevents tracking students permanently into groups that focus on low-level math skills—groups for which teachers may develop low expectations.
Math integration across the curriculum. Teachers drew students' attention to fractions in music, to the math used to create three-dimensional figures in art, and to the use of measurement in science. Faculty members shared integrated math lessons with one another through an electronic bulletin board and posted math project work prominently in classrooms and hallways.
Internal math assessment. To more proactively monitor student progress, we created our own math assessment for Banneker. By administering this assessment by grade level in October, January, and May, we chart student development, identify specific areas of weakness, and use data to guide instruction.

Many Levels of Success

Banneker students' test scores on the spring 2004 MCAS reflected the overwhelming success of Math Everywhere. From the 2002–2003 academic year to the 2003–2004 academic year, the number of students scoring at the “Proficient” or “Advanced” level increased across all three of the grade levels tested: There was an increase of 11 percentage points for 4th graders, 6 points for 6th graders, and 9 points for 8th graders. The number of students scoring at the failing level decreased by 28 percentage points for 4th graders and by 42 points for 6th graders. The failure rate for 8th graders remained about the same.
We also see Math Everywhere's success in richer teacher collaboration. For example, when a middle school math teacher asks our grade 3–6 literacy coach for help teaching the literacy framework—which teaches students how to expand their ideas in writing—to students answering open-ended math questions, and the literacy coach eagerly agrees, we know that our teachers are taking initiative to connect math to all content areas.
In a spring 2004 teacher satisfaction survey, Banneker teachers ranked better teamwork and Math Everywhere as our greatest successes of the school year. This campaign gave us a common language to talk about our work, helped us focus, and made each of us feel part of the Banneker community. Teacher morale is higher, and we have become a more cohesive team. Math Everywhere changed Benjamin Banneker's culture as well as our test scores.
End Notes

1 Ware, S. (2004, June 10). Schools import Singapore math style. Boston Globe.

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