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Equity, and Interventions, at NCTM

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The theme of this year's National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual meeting—attended by about 12,000 educators—is “equity,” essentially trying to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn.

It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the big themes of the teachers and academic scholars presenting at various sessions, and among companies trying to peddle commercial products in the exhibit hall, was intervention. As teachers cope with pressure to lift math scores, and attempt to teach difficult courses at earlier grades (see my earlier entry on the question of when calculus should be taught), schools are scrambling to find ways to help students who are lagging behind.

Many of the sessions focused on helping students with a specific math topic—algebra, not surprisingly, was the subject of several sessions. Other speakers explored strategies for building the skills of English-language learners in math, or helping students in informal settings through math nights, games, contests, and after-school activities. And a number of guests focused on helping students master specific, crucial areas of early-grades math, such as fractions.

Educators also flocked to sessions on the potential for technology to make math understandable to students. One big name in the school technology world, Texas Instruments, presented information on a product, TI Math Forward, which seeks to combine interactive technology (such as its Navigator technology, an interactive program) with coaching and common planning time for teachers, and double-block, or 100-minute classes. Administrators from the Richardson Independent School District, outside Dallas, said they have made progress in closing the gap between white and minority students, and improved scores on state tests, through the program. TI Math Forward is geared toward students in grades 7-9. The district had tried double-blocking math courses previously, but it wasn’t until it combined extra time with other strategies that it saw real student improvements, said Kristen San Juan, a math support specialist in the district.

“The middle-school grades are where things fall off for many students,” San Juan told me. “We wanted to address the gap, the decline at that age.”

NCTM’s attendance numbers for its annual meeting dipped a bit from some previous years—perhaps not surprising, given the state of the economy. At its annual event in Anaheim in 2005, where improving the math skills of minority students was a major theme, I reported that 14,000 educators attended.

Many attendees see conferences as a valuable way to learn about the best practices across the nation and the latest thinking among researchers and other experts for raising student achievement. For math teachers who are trying to reduce the gap between high- and low-achieving students, what strategies are showing the most promise in your schools?

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Interesting findings from the TI presentation--which I hope isn't resisted because it was plainly intended to interest people in buying their product. I have seen too many things (like block scheduling) grasped as effective tools with too little emphasis on what they are used for. More time engaged (or not engaged) in less than effective methodologies is not likely to have an enormous effect. More time CAN however, enable implementation of better strategies if the concept is carefully thought through. But it takes more attention to planning and evaluation than we frequently give. So often the key determining factor in change is whether someone in a decision-making capacity believes in the change. Insufficient attention goes into implementation--including the understanding and agreement (or buy-in) of the teachers who are charged with implementation. Without care, a double block can become class time plus homework time--end result, no change, another failed reform.

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