Imagine for a minute you’re in third-grade. You’re eight years old, and recess just ended. Now it’s time for that dreaded subject—math. As you wait for class to begin, you notice the biggest jar of Skittles you’ve ever seen standing tall on your teacher’s desk. Quietly your teacher asks, “What do you wonder about this jar?” This question, and others like it, are how Sarasota County School teachers are reinventing the way math is taught in elementary schools.
In 2014, the Florida Department of Education replaced the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) with the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA). Whereas FCAT and exams like it test for retention of facts, the new FSA tests a student’s logic and problem-solving ability. This change created a problem for the A-Rated Sarasota County School District, as data showed only 69 percent of its third through fifth graders scored proficient or above on the math portion of the FSA.
District administrators had to find a new way to provide math instruction to get students to start thinking algebraically earlier in life.
Barancik Foundation partnered with experts at the District to reinvent the way elementary school teachers could teach math in a fun, creative, and engaging way. Studies prove that when it comes to school-related factors, a student’s teacher has the greatest influence over academic performance. To increase elementary student math comprehension, teachers needed to learn how to teach differently than ever before.
With $1.1 million in funding from Barancik Foundation, over the course of four years the District designed and implemented an Elementary Math Teacher Training Initiative, dubbed Maximizing Math Mentality. The initiative employed full-time math specialists to embolden teachers with more effective methods to help their students not just find correct exam answers but understand the underlying math concepts behind them.
Maximizing Math Mentality utilized three components:
More than 850 elementary school teachers received innovative and hands-on training from math specialists. Instruction focused less on using text books and more on fun, engaging, creative, and interactive teaching methods to get students excited about math. The majority of Barancik Foundation’s funding paid for substitutes so classroom teachers could fully participate in the day-long trainings offered throughout the year.
An online toolkit was developed to allow teachers to practice their new instruction techniques in their own time. Classrooms were equipped with hands-on manipulatives to help students understand complex concepts by using concrete materials.
Professional Learning Communities
After the training sessions, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) were established at every school. PLCs are made up of a team of 3-5 teachers and are facilitated by math specialists. In a process called “rounding,” PLCs work together to perfect math lessons and receive feedback from their peers. They provide a collaborative and safe environment for teachers to learn from each other and build their confidence, creating a self-sustaining way for teachers to pass on their techniques throughout the district and to new teachers.
Adding Up the Results
The three key components of Maximizing Math Mentality worked together to provide impressive outcomes for both the students and the teachers.
- Evaluation findings show there was a statistically significant increase in student test scores and a rise in teachers’ confidence in math instruction.
- Maximizing Math Mentality was also strategic in breaking the stigma of professional development in the school District. The ramped-up training in both scale and scope built buy-in from teachers and set a new standard for professional development in Sarasota County Schools.
- Professional development no longer focuses on an individual teacher who closes their door and instructs in isolation. It involves all teachers through collaboration and peer-to-peer support.
Maximizing Math Mentality’s impact will guide a long-lasting and compounding effect. More than 850 Sarasota County teachers have revolutionized the way math is being taught in elementary schools. The new instruction will further develop as teachers continue to share, experiment, and grow along with their students. For the students, the engagement doesn’t stop either. The district expanded the initiative to middle school classrooms, so that students have a more comfortable experience transitioning into middle school and ultimately through to graduation.