How To Have High Expectations Of Students Who Are Multiple Grade Levels Behind In Math



I think most of us remember learning about the Pygmalion Effect in our teacher education classes. Here’s a refresher in case you need it…


Rosenthal and Jacobson originally described the Pygmalion Effect as the following: “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)

In terms of teaching students who are multiple grade levels behind, I take this to mean:

When we pass out below grade level math worksheets, students are going to continue performing below grade level.

I think we as teachers KNOW high expectations are important, but it’s harder said than done when our students are multiple grade levels behind in math. We can search for all the math interventions and math intervention strategies we want to, but unless we also truly believe our students (even the apathetic ones) can do math at high levels, everything will fall short.


Students can see through the - excuse my language - B.S. If we’re printing off 3rd grade multiplication worksheets for our 9th graders, they hear us saying, “I can’t believe they don’t know how to multiply.” Low expectations. And guess what? “These kids” will sink to meet them. Additionally, we’re constantly told to “meet kids where they are” which makes all of this SO confusing! This takes some real finessing, but I believe you can start with grade level content and scaffold in “meeting students where they are.” This blog post will help show you how.


How We Might *Unknowingly* Be Communicating Low Expectations

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of most of the things on this list. But as I continued teaching high school intervention I began to see how harmful they were to students. Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you without ideas to combat this list! Just keep reading!

  1. Spending weeks reviewing basic math operations

  2. Not allowing the use of a calculator to access grade level content

  3. Using curriculum materials that are multiple grade levels below students actual grade level

These 3 examples are things I see happening all the time in classrooms I visit as well as my own classroom from time to time. But we have to know better to do better, so let’s dig in.


How To Communicate High Expectations To Low Performing Students


#1) Instead of passing out basic math fact practice worksheets at a 3rd or 4th grade level, give students an Open Middle question that allows students to practice those basic concepts in a more conceptual way.


If you haven’t checked out Open Middle yet, get over there! It’s pretty easy to get the gist of it, but Author, Robert Kaplinsky has tons of resources to help you out. If students are struggling with multiplication, instead of printing out a 3 column by 10 row 4th grade multiplication worksheet, let them grapple with this open middle task for a bit. If students are struggling with adding and subtracting negative numbers (I mean, who isn’t), give this open middle task a try. I hope you can see how students are still practicing the basic math operations we know they need help with, but in a way that feels more respectful of their grade level and focuses more on conceptual understanding than just procedural fluency.



#2) Instead of calling on volunteers during your period, randomly call on students using a technique like cold call to communicate that participation is expected of everyone.


This is my #1 most unpopular opinion, but also my #1 more effective engagement strategy. When we only call on volunteers, our students who struggle are NEVER going to participate. No matter how much you encourage or incentivize participation, unless it’s required, it’s just not going to happen. When we randomly call on students all period long it communicates, “my teacher believes we can all do this.” You can read more about cold call and how to get started with it in a respectful way over on this blog post.



#3) Instead of delivering content with 20 minutes of lecture then 20 minutes of worksheet practice, try the Math Wars Method and weave I do, we do, you do throughout the period to make class time more collaborative and engaging.


One of the most common instructional approaches I’ve seen in the hundreds of classrooms I’ve coached in my client work is gradual release of responsibility or “I do, we do, you do.” I see teachers doing 20 minutes of “I do” or lecture, then 20 minutes of worksheet practice or “we do,” then 20 minutes of getting started on homework which is the “you do.” This doesn’t work for students who struggle - you can read more about why over on this blog post. I personally believe that gradual release of responsibility is the most effective way to deliver content to students who struggle, but we need to switch up the pacing. I created and used the Math Wars Method with incredible success in my own math intervention classrooms in South Central Los Angeles, East San Jose, and Denver and have now trained hundreds of teachers across the country to have the same success with students who are multiple grade levels behind in math through my Math Wars Method Workshop. Instead of the traditional I do, we do, you do that I shared earlier, I suggest breaking up the content into chunks of problems of similar rigor and doing 1 “I do” then 1 “we do” then 1 “you do” problem. Formatively assessing how students are doing, then moving on to another chunk of content. Teachers rave about the collaboration, participation, and engagement when using the Math Wars Method with students who struggle.



#4) Instead of “teaching to their level,” try starting with grade level content and scaffold the gaps you know they have.


This is by far the most challenging thing to do. The only reason I’m recommending this is because I’ve actually walked through it. My 5th year in the classroom I was teaching 9th grade math intervention to kids who had failed math 5th-8th grade. The gaps were large. My administration told me I just needed to teach the regular Integrated Math 1 content and not to teach below grade level content. So I did. It was slow. We didn’t go as in depth as I did with my “regular” classes. But you know what? These kids blew me away. They took the same benchmark tests and scored just as well as my “regular” kids. And I believe the key was setting high expectations.


Here’s the thing. When we print out addition and division worksheets - with good intentions… that is where they’re at - we are communicating to them, “this teacher thinks I’m dumb. She doesn’t believe I can do math. I saw this same worksheet in 3rd grade. I’m done. I’m not even gonna try. What’s gonna be different this year?” Instead, when students are assigned a math intervention class and are met with a teacher saying, “I know this is ‘intervention’ but I believe you can do grade level math and I’m going to help you fill in any gaps you might have from previous years as we go” those kids are going to rise to the occasion. My favorite resources for helping navigate this are, this blog post on “unfinished learning,” resources from Achieve The Core, and The Mindful Math Coach Bridge To Grade Level Math Workshop.


Administrators, if you want help implementing high expectations for low performing students, learn more about my services and contact me today!


Teachers! Don’t leave before snagging this FREE PDF Math Intervention Strategy Guide by clicking here!




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