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Math progress adds up
A new way of teaching math is helping students master tough subject
Deon Martin sings along with classmates as they use music to help them understand how fractions work at East Hall Middle School Thursday afternoon.
Were you slow to raise your hand in math class as a kid? Do you still feel like you're not a "math person"? If you were a kid in an elementary classroom today, it might be different for you.

American educators are realizing that the math class of yesteryear, where pen and paper were the primary tools, is not effectively teaching math basics or inspiring students to pursue careers in engineering and science.

Over the past five years, the state phased in a new Georgia Performance Standards curriculum that teaches students a deeper understanding of mathematics rooted in hands-on lessons with real-world applications.

Results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress show Georgia was one of 15 states to show "significant improvement" in eighth-grade mathematics, although Georgia still trails behind the national average.

State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox credits the new state standards for the score increase.

Nationally, the NAEP scores put 39 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders at the proficient level, meaning they show the knowledge and skills they should have at that grade. That means millions of kids are behind in meeting the goal of the No Child Left Behind law that aims for every student to perform at their grade level in reading and math by 2014. Congress hopes to rewrite the law next year.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the NAEP results mean "the status quo isn't good enough," and called for action to prepare students to compete in a global economy.

Jeremy Kilpatrick, Regents professor of mathematics at the University of Georgia, is a national leader in math education, and said he believes Georgia's new math standards are headed in the right direction.

"If students take the four units of mathematics laid out by the (Georgia Performance Standards), they will be better prepared mathematically for college or for careers," he said in an e-mail. "Preparation to become a mathematician, however, requires much more than the GPS."

While using the state curriculum as a framework for math instruction, local schools are adding their own elements to support student achievement.

Many Gainesville elementary schools implement the state curriculum by breaking students out into three ability levels to cater to individual learning styles and abilities. Schools within the charter system also apply their own charter model to math classes.

At Gainesville Exploration Academy, for example, learning revolves around a science and math emphasis. Principal Priscilla Collins said the school received a grant from NASA in 2003 that provides teachers with tools to integrate math and science careers into classroom learning. Students also can showcase their math and science knowledge at "Science Fun Nights" held regularly at the school.

But it's the three groups - remediation, standard and accelerated - within every math class that Collins credits with the school's 2009 state math test scores. More than 82 percent of students met or exceeded state math standards, according to the state Department of Education. She said it allows slower students to understand concepts before moving on while allowing faster learners to cover more ground.

"Teachers truly know what level children are operating on and where they need to take them," she said. " ... It doesn't take more stuff, it just takes more planning. It's not just open your books to page 33."

Another key to engaging students is breaking out of memorization and extensive repetition, Collins said.

"It's not just pen and paper. You talk about math and use manipulatives. You see it. That's how children learn today," she said. "It's about actually doing something with your learning, not just sitting with pen and paper and sitting and getting."

Elizabeth Wiley is an instructional coach at Centennial Arts Academy, and said the Gainesville arts charter school also uses the group break-out approach in math.

She said Centennial began using the three-group approach in math classes last year, and credits it with 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test math scores where nearly 88 percent of students met or exceeded state expectations.

Math = Fun

Wiley said Centennial math teachers can show students an association between math and fun. Wiley said teachers often infuse math lessons with the arts, such as singing or dancing.

"They love doing that," she said. "Putting the facts to music or some kind of motion for students who are kinesthetic learners really does cement those facts that they're learning."

Sixth-grade teachers at East Hall Middle School put algorithms to the tunes of popular hip-hop songs.

A look inside East Hall Middle math teacher Jennifer Fowler's class shows students singing about fractions to a Latin beat produced by rapper Daddy Yankee.

"Before they didn't remember vocabulary words but now they have the signs (or dance movements)," she said. "If you don't make it fun, they're not going to learn it."

Candace Wilbanks, another math teacher at East Hall, said the team of sixth-grade teachers put words and dance moves to students' favorite radio hits.

"By making it engaging, it breaks down that barrier of ‘I can't," she said. "... I'll go in a sixth-grade class and they'll do a call and response: ‘A number by a letter means? Multiply it!'"

Seeing is understanding

Three years ago, 12 Hall County elementary schools began implementing Singapore Math while the system's other nine elementary schools initiated the model a year later, said instructor Nancy Fields.

She said the math program began in 1981 as Singapore's national math program. It requires students to develop an understanding of math first with concrete manipulatives, then with pictures, before understanding math in the abstract.
There are no gimmicks or intense repetition, she said.

"It just makes a huge connection for students when it's organized into something they can see," she said of Singapore Math. "It's very visual and it's built on students building an image in their mind about quantities."

Fields said Hall County educators aligned Singapore Math with the state standards. The alignment ensures students will meet state standards while building a foundation of algebra and geometry necessary for success in middle school math and beyond.

Superintendent Will Schofield said Hall students' math computation scores on this year's Iowa Test of Basic Skills were extremely positive. Since the 2006 administration of the national test, Schofield said third-grade students gained 30 percentage points on the math computation portion of the test.

Fields said Singapore Math was introduced to the United States in 2001 and Hall County is the largest school system in the country using it.

"It's primarily used by small schools, charter schools and private schools. ... It's becoming a more popular program, but it does take a lot of work to implement it because you do expect teachers to change some of the ways they're teaching and it's rigorous," she said.

Fields said Singapore Math requires students to use manipulatives, like discs representing 100 or 1,000, to solve word problems with real-world applications. Instead of ditching the manipulatives after second grade, the program continues using manipulatives to solidify understanding, which sets students up for a smooth transition to middle school.

"This program is very rigorous, and much stronger than any other program we've used before," she said. "It is one of the most rigorous math programs in the United States. ... It's a process of using the program and getting used to the program and students getting used to it."

Cuts undermine teacher training

Kilpatrick, along with local educators, agree that while the state's framework for math instruction has progressed, support for math teachers has not.

"Not enough assistance has been given to Georgia teachers to prepare them to meet the new standards," he said.

Fields said teacher training is a big hurdle to overcome in helping America's students to become better mathematicians. It's one area where it is most obvious that state cuts affect the classroom, she said.

The state informed school systems this summer funding for three days of teacher salaries will be cut, and more furloughs are expected this spring.

"With us having to take our three days furlough days, we've had to take out our three training days," she said. "... I would love to be able to provide more."