Math has long been the most failed subject in middle school and high school. According to Ron Schachter's work, Solving Our Algebra Problem: Getting All Students through Algebra I to Improve Graduation Rates,* math is the reason cited by over 80% of high school dropouts that they gave up on school. And the pandemic has made math equity issues far more robust in the US and beyond. LAUSD, one of the largest school districts in the country, has “lost 20 years of math progress due to [the] pandemic” this article reports.
With students below grade level on the rise I have noticed a big push for schools and districts to adopt digital intervention curricula that assesses students grade level, then builds a custom progression to remediate and get the student up to their true grade level.
The problem I see with this “just in case intervention model” is two fold.
For one, nothing communicates low expectations like allowing 9th graders to work on digital math worksheets at a 4th grade level. Yes I realize they don’t know how to add fractions or multiply negative numbers, but if you allow them to do the same math work they did 5 years ago, they feel insulted. You might as well say to them, “I know you can’t do actual grade level math, so I’m just going to have you work on this 4th grade math work.” Ouch. If you’ve looked into Hattie’s research on visible learning you’ll know that “student expectations” was found to have the second highest effect on achievement with an effect size of 1.33.
Additionally, the push for digital intervention curricula reduces the role of the teacher to almost nothing. I get that it’s data driven and data informed grouping (which I love), but many math intervention teachers are left wondering, “What’s my role in this?”
In my work supporting secondary math teachers across the US, I have found that empowering teachers with pedagogy and strategies that actually work for students who struggle produce not only much higher student achievement results, but also happier teachers.
And so the C.A.R.E.S. Math Achievement Framework™ was born!
The framework is the roadmap for math achievement for teachers working with students who have been historically unsuccessful in mathematics.
It’s not a quick fix. It will take time. It may even be uncomfortable at times. You may disagree with me. That’s okay.
How did the framework come to be?
Me: “I’m sorry if I mispronounced your name. Can you tell me how to say it?”
Student: “It’s not my name.”
Student next to her: “Guuurl, you got to say it like you screamin at someone in the ghetto, AY JOHN-AYYYYY!”
Me: Wide eyed, speechless, “John - Aye, got it.”
That is an actual exchange from my very first day of teaching at a charter high school in South Central Los Angeles. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be there. I had just finished my student teaching at Compton High School and South LA was where I wanted to teach. But nothing could have prepared me for all I would experience, learn, and open up to this year.
I’m not going to lie, my first two years of teaching were challenging. As a 23 year old white woman working at a school that was 100% free-reduced lunch and 100% Black and Latinx students, I had quite a few (understatement) reality checks about differences from my upper-middle class high school by the beach just 22 miles away and the high school I found myself teaching in.
But I had an unwavering belief in my students.
I knew I could help them overcome the gatekeeper that is Algebra 1. I wanted nothing more than for them to find success in my classroom and realize they were in fact, “math people.”
So I worked tirelessly to become the best math teacher I could be for my students. I tried all sorts of approaches. I worked with multiple instructional coaches. I cried and brainstormed with colleagues at all of the happy hours. Until I found what worked.
Then when I became an instructional coach myself years later, I helped other teachers find what worked best for their students and realized it’s usually the same 5 traits that predict success of classrooms filled with students who struggle with math.
What are those magical 5 traits?
They make up my C.A.R.E.S. Math Achievement Framework and here they are…
The C.A.R.E.S. Math Achievement Framework™ for students who struggle
C - Classroom community
Students who struggle with math and have trauma from past math classes need an intentional community for them to achieve success. Have students had an opportunity to share about their math pasts with the teacher and their peers? Are students comfortable making mistakes in this classroom? Are all students comfortable to speak up and participate in this classroom? These questions are all a vital part of creating a classroom community where students who have struggled can succeed.
A - Active participation
Students who struggle with math need to be invited into open ended math discussions. Prompts that have multiple correct answers and just allow students to explain their thinking rather than getting one correct answer are the best way to facilitate this type of participation. When students achieve some success with this sort of active participation, they will be more likely to engage and participate in more math activities and discussions. Two of my favorites are Which One Doesn’t Belong? along with, Notice and Wonder.
R - Readily accessible content
I’ve been in well over 100 secondary math classrooms to date and what I see most often is 20 minutes of homework review, 20 minutes of direct instruction, then 20 minute of classwork. This doesn’t work for our students who struggle. I am a big fan of gradual release of responsibility (I do, we do, you do), but broken up into smaller chunks of content. Check out this blog post, Should “I do, we do, you do” in Math? to learn more. This makes the math content easily accessible for students who have struggled to experience success in mathematics.
E - Engaging activities
Independent or group work is vital in math classes. Students must practice the mathematics in order to gain confidence and competence. But worksheets just don’t cut it. For one, worksheets don’t offer any immediate feedback on performance. A student could do the whole worksheet wrong and not know it. Another knock against worksheets is that they are just visually overwhelming for students who struggle. They usually don’t have enough room to show work and they are cluttered with math, letters, numbers, fractions, and symbols. If you’ve failed math for years and years, a worksheet is not approachable. Instead teachers with students who struggle should focus on activities that show one problem at a time and welcome immediate feedback.
S - Simple and equitable assessment practices
This is arguably the most important. If teachers are rocking the previous 4 parts of this framework, but miss this, it will likely all fall apart. Our assessment and grading practices are everything. If students feel our grading system is not equitable, they will give up and everything else will fall apart. So often a student gets a 2/10 on a quiz and then no matter how much they improve, their grade can just not recover. This sort of grading will never motivate students who struggle. Instead, we should look critically at our assessment practices and even consider switching to mastery based grading or standards based grading to ensure equitable practices.
*Schachter, Ron. (2013). Solving Our Algebra Problem: Getting All Students through Algebra I to Improve Graduation Rates. District Administration, 49(5) , p43-46