Since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, U.S. schools have been forced to take a hard look at their students' achievement data -- as reported on standardized state assessment tests -- make sense of that data and then use it to steer curriculum in order to improve learning. Sounds simple enough, right? Not quite. With so many variables that affect student achievement, including geography, socioeconomics, race and parental involvement -- all factors outside the school system's control -- some districts find that solutions to increase student achievement are often shots in the dark, albeit with the greatest intentions.
In Richardson, Texas, the Richardson Independent School District (RISD) had these variables stacked against it due to a high percentage of students in minority and low socioeconomic demographics, who as a cohort have typically scored lower on standardized tests than their white, middle-class counterparts. In some RISD schools, up to 50 percent of students come from poor homes and many have high mobility rates.
The RISD was determined to close this widening achievement gap, particularly in middle-grade math curriculum. Gov. Rick Perry passed state education laws in 2006, requiring students to take four years of math in high school, beginning with the class of 2011. With news of this legislation coming down the pike, in 2004 Jim Nelson, then-district superintendent, approached Texas Instruments (TI) about collaborating to implement a program that addressed the declining achievement trend the district faced.
"Research, as well as years of experience in math education, indicated that there was not one 'silver bullet' that would solve this challenge," explained Lisa Brady-Gill, TI's director of education policy and practice. Mathematics experts, researchers, TI, RISD administrators and teachers collaborated to develop the intervention program now called TI MathForward.
MathForward's technology component incorporates the TI-Navigator, a graphing calculator attached to a wireless hub, which communicates directly to a router connected to the teacher's computer. In real time, a teacher can view students' calculators on the computer, receive contributions from students and assess their comprehension. The instant feedback lets teachers address their students' needs immediately, rather than waiting for unit tests as the culminating assessment for a week's worth of lessons.
"Because the system can anonymously display individual student responses to the class, it helps create a safe environment for students to share and compare thoughts and answers," said Kristen San Juan, the RISD's MathForward implementation curriculum specialist, who was the mathematics department chair at Lake Highlands Junior High in Dallas during the pilot year. "The interactivity of the technology engages students, even those who would not be participating otherwise ... [which] helps reduce discipline problems in the classroom."
From a teacher's perspective, Karrie Kellerman, seventh-grade math block and pre-advanced placement mathematics teacher at the district's Apollo Junior High, gave an example of how she might incorporate the technology in her classroom. "I may ask the students to find the amount of sales tax on a certain clothing item," Kellerman said. "Students submit their answers via Quick Poll, [a TI-Navigator application]. I would see if students were able to do this problem correctly. If several answers were all relatively close to each other, I would assume any mistakes made were in computation and not in understanding the problem as a whole. If the answers the students gave were all over the place, I would know that they did not understand the question. Determining how you explain the problem, if you need to give more examples or if students are ready for the next concept is helpful."
However, Kellerman, like other teachers implementing the technology in their classrooms, faced a few challenges along the way. She said ensuring she really understood the calculator functions and assessment applications was crucial, as well as not
being tied up by the technology at her desk. "I want to be free to wander around the room to work with my students," she said. "If I have to sit and think about what to do next, then I am wasting time that should be given to my students."
San Juan agreed. "With the limitless use of technology, teachers need a training and support [system] uncommon in most teaching situations. Once teachers learn the initial functions of the technology, they can become very creative and stronger teachers for their students," she said.
That's why professional development beyond the technological component is imperative. The RISD provided in-person professional development for effective use of instructional time; instructional strategies, such as problem solving, skill builders and higher-level questioning; strategies for setting high expectations for all students; and effective technology use in math instruction -- all of which the district credits for the gains it has seen in student achievement since the program's implementation in 2005.
After the first implementation during the 2005-2006 school year at the pilot school, Lake Highlands Junior High, 33 percent of students passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test who previously didn't pass. That was a group of about 124 seventh- and eighth-grade students. In the second year of implementation, with five junior highs and 800 students on board, the pass rate jumped to 47 percent of students who hadn't passed TAKS before. The district was so pleased with the results, it added a freshman-year algebra I pilot class, which consisted of 125 students, 57 percent of whom passed TAKS, though they hadn't in years past.
Now that the district is in its fourth year of implementation, it has expanded the program significantly. All 13 of the district's secondary schools received the technology, which includes the seventh and eighth grade and algebra I classes. In addition, two high schools created MathForward classes in algebra II and pre-calculus. Currently 90 RISD teachers use the calculators; 44 teachers use them specifically for MathForward classes.
Districts, such as the RISD, facing declining achievement must consider some of the obstacles before implementing MathForward. Administrators are challenged with building a master schedule to allow extended "block" classes, so students have more math class time. Officials also must provide teachers with common preparation periods for collaboration, lesson development, curriculum support and ongoing staff development. All easier said than done.
However, if positive student responses -- like one student at the RISD's Lake Highland's Freshman Center -- are an indicator of effectiveness, administrators might need to get creative to bring the program to their districts. As seen on the TI MathForward Web site testimonials, he said the program made him think differently about math. "I want to know more and go into more detail," he said. "I started thinking about college; maybe taking a math class in college. It gave me confidence."
What more could we want for our struggling students?