Digital Promise: Math for Every Student

Tip of the hat to Scholastic’s Math Hub for posting this piece on the state of technology in math education.  Though many math educators report still relying on a basal textbook, many more are employing a variety of digital resources to help reach struggling math students:

On average, math teachers reported spending more than one full class period per week using digital tools or content, and many spent significantly more time utilizing technology. Specifically, among teachers who report using digital content or tools during more then 26% of class time (high digital use), the highest percentages are remedial math teachers and grades 6-8 math teachers. The most commonly used digital tool is interactive whiteboards. Teachers considered interactive whiteboards to be the most important supplemental material in addition to textbooks. This demand for whiteboards is a change from 2008 when interactive whiteboards were not even part of the survey. Math teachers and educators value the “faster reporting” and “detailed student/class information” generated by computer-based programs, features that traditional textbooks and workbooks cannot provide.

What many math educators have discovered is that moving from whole-class instruction to differentiating for struggling students requires going beyond the textbook to solutions that harness technology to adapt and respond to a student’s learning trajectory.  Technology of that sort can take multiple forms, but some important features include the ability to individualize for a student’s needs, provide supplemental resources, and multiple explanations for math skills and concepts.  As many educators now understand, one size does not fit all when it comes to math instruction; and ensuring that students graduate ready for the mathematical demands of the post-secondary world entails matching student math ability to the level of the lesson. 

At MetaMetrics, we’ve attempted to harness technology to supplement and strengthen student math ability through Math at Home.  Math at Home serves as a portal for matching students to targeted math resources across a variety of mediums.  Because each student has a different preferred learning modality, Math at Home offers online resources, video tutorials, skill practice sites, literature guides, games, and hand’s-on activities – a wide variety of resources to keep students engaged in math activity.  But Math at Home is more than a mere portal.  There are plenty of activity portals widely available.  What distinguishes Math at Home from other student portals is the Quantile Framework.  Math at Home uses the student’s Quantile measure to establish the student’s math level.  The list of available resources differs for each student and is based on their Quantile measure, or math level.  Additionally, Math at Home utilizes a large database of textbooks to match students with resources of their choice based on their current textbook lesson, but at their own math level.  If you haven’t already tried it, be sure to take a look.

Math Prize for Girls

Congratulations to Victoria Xia for winning the Math Prize for Girls at M.I.T.  Xia, a 15 years old high school sophomore, won first place and a $25,000 prize for taking first place.  The contest was sponsored by Advantage Testing Foundation and consisted of 20 challenging math problems to be solved in 150 minutes. Xia has won previous math distinctions such as helping the US team win a gold medal at the 2011  Girls Mathematical Olympiad and also a honorable mention at last years Math Prize for Girls contest.  Kudos to Victoria!

It’s refreshing to see students take a deliberate and focused interest in mathematics.  With the recent focus on STEM education, along with increased demand for math and engineering majors in the workplace, it’s good to see U.S. students committed to high level math.  Our own contribution to improving student math achievement is the Quantile Framework for Mathematics, which allows teachers to differentiate math instruction for struggling students.  Plus, tools like Math at Home allow students to engage with targeted math resources all year long.

Feeling the Pressure: Getting Parents Involved in Education

A recent Pew Research study reports that two-thirds of the American public think parents are not putting enough “pressure” on their children to study hard.  Over 20 countries were surveyed and the U.S. is more likely than any other country to report that we were not putting enough pressure on our students.  Interestingly, China was almost the complete opposite in reporting the belief that they put too much pressure on students (68%).  As a country we are starting to recognize the important role that parents play in shaping and promoting their children’s educational achievement.  In fact, this same survey indicated that, in 2006, 56% of the US public thought parents were not putting enough pressure on their children.  In five years the trend has increased by 8 percentage points.

Years ago, Susan Hall and Louisa Moats wrote Straight Talk About Reading, in which they argued for conceiving of literacy achievement as a shared responsibility.  If we are going to compete with other countries and have every child graduate from high school prepared for the rigors of college and career, parents will have to play a larger and vital role in supporting their children’s educational attainment.  My belief is that all parents want to be good parents and want a better future for their children.  While it is fairly easy for some parents to get involved in their child’s education, many parents, especially our low income parents, have trouble figuring out how to be involved.  Due to time constraints and perhaps their own lack of educational success, they become passive observers instead of active participants in their child’s education.

As we think about this latest Pew Research, educators and policy makers need to think through how we can best enlist and encourage active parental involvement.  “Pressure” is not what we really need.  For most of us pressure has a negative and stressful connotation (see, for example, these common meanings for the word ‘pressure’). What we really need is for parents to create an environment at home that supports academic achievement.  To accomplish this shift in parental expectations and involvement, we will need to conduct a comprehensive and concerted campaign of education and support of parents.  Through PTAs, PSAs, teacher conferences, pediatrician visits, community meetings, library sessions, and many other outlets, we need a crisp message for parents on what they can do to promote their child’s achievement.  The critical importance of school attendance, of devoting space and time at the home for homework,  of turning off the TV and reading, and the use of public libraries, to name just a few, all need to be part of the message.

It is also incumbent upon educators to build or introduce parent friendly tools and resources for parents to use with their children.  Here at MetaMetrics we’ve attempted to do just that with tools like ‘Find a Book’ and Math at Home.  ‘Find a Book’ allows parents and students to match themselves to book of interest at their own individual reading level.  Built around research demonstrating both the importance of targeting readers at the right level and of allowing students to self-select their own reading material, ‘Find a Book’ allows users to indicate their Lexile reading level as well as the topics on which they prefer to read.  Students can then select titles of interest within their own reading range and create book lists to print or save.  Best of all, ‘Find a Book’ links up with public libraries, allowing students and parents to immediately see which books on their list are available through the public library, as well as the closest branches that carry those titles.  ‘Find a Book’ is free to use.  Check it out here.

Math at Home functions in a similar way.  Based on the Quantile Framework for Mathematics, Math at Home allows students to select free, targeted math resources to help augment their textbook lessons.  Like ‘Find a Book’, Math at Home is built around the idea of targeting students at the right mathematical level.  Parents or students simply select the textbook lesson(s) they wish to supplment and they are immediately presented with a range of resoruces targeted to the individual student’s level.  Users can then create multiple resource lists for use over the summer or all year long.  Math at Home is also free to use and available here.

It’s our hope that an increasing number of parents will elect to be involved in their children’s education and that educators will welcome participation from enthusiastic and caring parents.  We also hope to see more tools and resources available that help supplement and codify the lessons learned in the classroom, tools that families can use as a way to prepare students for life after graduation.

Keeping Math Fresh…All Summer Long

Summer is just a few weeks away and, for many students, an extended break offers an academic hiatus – a pause from the rigors of academic life.  Unfortunately, summer break also means that many students experience a significant amount of learning loss.  And that loss adds up.  Over the years, twelve contiguous summers of learning loss translates into a significant gap between where many students end up and where students should be to be prepared for life after high school.   Which is why many educators encourage parents and students to stay engaged over the summer break. 

Hat’s off to Jennifer Chintala over at Math Hub for recommending ways for students to stay engaged with math activities over the extended break:

While most parents do not want to subject their kids to hour after hour of math drills during their break, many do want their students to continue to practice their skills throughout the summer months. We all know that math is all around us, but parents often have to make math more explicit to ensure their students recognize how they use math outside the classroom. Depending on the student’s level, parents can play counting games with kids, look for shapes in nature, or help children work with money during a vacation.

Here at MetaMetrics we share the concern that students fail to stay engaged over the summer months, especially in math.  Which is why we’ve developed Math at HomeMath at Home is a free tool and provides access to fun and engaging resources – like websites, worksheets, and videos – that support textbook lessons that students have studied throughout the school year.  Best of all, Math at Home helps students practice specific math skills and concepts that are targeted to their individual level.  Students and teachers can even build customized lists of materials and activities.

If you haven’t yet seen Math at Home, we encourage you to check it out and take advantage of this valuable free resource for keeping students engaged all year long.

Another Voice for Increasing Instructional Time

In the past few weeks, we’ve written a number of posts on the importance of increasing student instructional time.  We’re not alone in recognizing the urgency of keeping the educational spigot on during the summer months.  Here’s yet another voice – LZ Granderson – calling for a greater emphasis on the amount of time students spend learning.  Granderson does a nice job rounding up the current thinking on the importance of year round learning and even references Harris Cooper’s work on summer loss. Cooper has argued that the cessation of learning during the summer months has a devastating long-term impact on a student’s overall academic future.  Our own Malbert Smith has made similar arguments and offered a number of ways to curb the effects of the academic loss that occurs each summer.

Granderson argues that the traditional school calendar was built around cultural and economic needs that may no longer be applicable:

…the reason for summer vacations in the first place was that little Johnny was needed in the fields to help the family during growing season. Today more people live in cities than they do in rural areas, and that farming structure has been obsolete for some time. If our kids aren’t working on the farm all summer long, what are they doing?

Granderson has a point.  At 180 days, the U.S. has one of the shortest school years of the PISA countries.  By way of comparison, Finland has just a few more at 190 days, while South Korean students are in school 40 days longer than their American counterparts!

In the meantime – until efforts to secure increased instructional time take hold as part of most education reform agendas – there are other resources to help keep students engaged over the summer.  Tools like Lexile Find a Book allow students to select books on topics of their choice and at their targeted reading level.  And because Find a Book is linked to public libraries, all students have a chance to access targeted reading material over the summer.  Tools like Math at Home allow students to access free math resources to supplement and reinforce their math lessons from the previous year.  The amount of math learning loss that occurs each summer (students rarely do any math instruction over the summer) is pronounced and found across the socio-economic spectrum.  Math at Home aims to curb the impact of that loss by matching students to targeted math resources that reinforce the lessons of the previous school year.

These tools are free and easy to use.  Be sure to take a look.

School’s Out Soon. Should It Be?

Here is Duke University’s Harris Cooper offering a bold plan for education reform – extending the school year.  There’s ample evidence to support the claim that increased instructional time has a positive impact on educational progress – particularly for low-income and struggling students.  As Cooper argues, the current administration has thankfully made extending instructional time a central component of their reform agenda, but he makes a compelling case for even more:

But it is not only the summer schedule that needs rethinking. The length and organization of the school day don’t serve our children well either. Look outside a school building as the day ends and you see a queue of buses and vans waiting to transport children to empty homes or to afterschool programs.

For the past 15 years, my graduate students and I have reviewed research on school time and calendar issues. We’ve looked at summer learning loss, summer school, year-round calendars, afterschool programs and homework.

For nearly all these reforms, the evidence suggests that more learning time would have positive effects for kids – especially for poor kids and those struggling in school. But each effect is generally small, on its own.

Most recently, we examined empirical studies on the impact of lengthening the school day and year. The collective finding (and the wisdom of school calendar researchers) is that a few extra minutes here and a few extra days there won’t be enough to have the desired effect.

Instead, the increases in time have to be substantial enough that educators can adopt new curricula – and new expectations about what students should know and when they should know it. Don’t add 15 minutes a day, add an hour. Don’t add five days to the calendar, add 20. And, simultaneously, change how that time is used.

We’ve written previously on the devastating impact of summer learning loss and have argued that steps should be taken to keep the educational spigot on during the summer months.  A study by Alexander, Entwistle, & Olson (2007) revealed that students across the socioeconomic spectrum make similar gains in reading and math during the school year, but that students from low-income families stagnate or slide during the intervening summer months.  As Cooper reminds us, students from more affluent families have access to a wide array of academic activities (summer academic camps, tutoring, enrichment programs, study abroad opportunities, etc…) and often don’t experience as much learning loss as their less affluent peers (although, it’s worth noting that students across the economic spectrum experience a degree of math learning loss during the summer).

Last year, Time brought national attention to the problem of summer slide:

And what starts as a hiccup in a 6-year-old’s education can be a crisis by the time that child reaches high school.  A major study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that while students made similar progress during the school year, regardless of economic status, the better-off kids held steady or continued to advance during the summer-while disadvantaged students fell back.  By the end of grammar school, low-income students had fallen nearly three grade levels behind.  By ninth grade, roughly two-thirds of the learning gap separating income groups could be blamed on summer learning loss.

We share Cooper’s concern and would argue that any serious effort at education reform must advocate, to some degree, extending instructional time for all students.  As is becoming clear,to remain competitive the structure of educational institutions (including the amount of time dedicated to instruction) must reflect the realities of an increasingly well-educated and global landscape – not remain tied to cultural norms and practices of the past.

In the meantime, our own efforts to combat summer learning loss can be found in the free utilities and tools we offer to educators and students.  Find a Book allows students to match themselves to targeted text based on their reading level and their interests.  Once selected, students can create individualized book lists that reflect their own interests and choices.  Find a Book is linked with public libraries across the U.S., making books of interest available to all students.  Math at Home allows educators to create entire resource lists specifically targeted to a student’s math level.  And because the resources are free and online, students can continue to practice and supplement their math lessons all summer long.  It’s our hope that these resources offer all students a way to remain connected and engaged with academic material year round.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.