Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series on the difficulties students have learning math, and what methods some schools and teachers are using with success.
Students at Thornapple Kellogg Middle School have been doing better at math this year thanks to their teachers, a new math coach and a curriculum director in a white lab coat.
Kim Chausow’s lab coat and stethoscope is a playful symbol of how seriously the school takes students’ struggles with math. She is part of an operating team that looks at spreadsheets to analyze test score data and offer more one-on-one support.
At the beginning of the year, Josh Thaler was hired as a math coach to give students that extra support. He’s worked with nearly 100 students, who attend three 30-minute sessions a week. Math teachers recommend the students to Thaler, who meets with them in his classroom during their regular math-class time. He also provides help before school and during lunch.
Thaler meets with teachers weekly to report on how the students getting help are doing. In the group of 52 students he has been tracking with data, 38 percent have seen their math scores improve this year from last. Of the 22 students who continuously got the most help, 77 percent saw their grades go up.
“The new program has helped numerous students in its first year,” Thaler said.
Chausow, the district’s curriculum director, played a major role in instituting the changes. She started forming the new ideas in the summer of 2013 after looking at information the school had collected through MEAP and Discovery Education tests.
“I saw our students who were struggling just continue to struggle more,” Chausow said. “As they moved up in grades, scores were barely staying the same or going down.”
She realized while the school had been successful in raising its reading scores, more attention needed to be given to middle and high school students in math. “It’s critical to provide this support to students and teachers because of the size of classes and the demands on teachers,” she said.
Chausow also learned from “Mrs. Clink,” her alter-ego. She wears a white lab coat with “Mrs. Clink” embroidered on it and carries a stethoscope to “check out if students’ brains are working.” She explained, “I’m not afraid to help students have fun while learning.”
“Clink” previously worked with students and spoke at assemblies as part of a team that brought literacy scores up using coaches. The success seen there led to Chausow’s adopting the coaching idea for math.
A math coach also was added to the high school this year, and an English Language Arts coach will be added to both schools next year.
An Image Problem
Thaler monitors students’ work with spreadsheets and by being in constant communication with teachers. His biggest challenge is reaching students who fear getting his help.
“I noticed this a lot with eighth-graders, less with seventh and the least with sixth,” Thaler said. “With a lot of middle school students being extremely self-conscious of what others think of them receiving help, they thought a label would be put on them.”
Visiting all the middle school math classes at the beginning of the year helped overcome this thinking, Thaler said.
“I was seen as being there to help anyone who struggled or had a question. I now have numerous students coming on their own terms asking for help, as opposed to having myself or their teacher notice their grade slip and then getting to them.”
Not all students learn the same way, and the math coaching helps reach those who learn differently, Chausow said.
“Part of it is helping students understand this is a good thing,” she said. “Some of these students just continue to feel the failure, because it’s been so hard for so long it’s hard for them to actually believe in themselves.”
The improved test scores have had at least one side effect — a thrilled curriculum director. “I couldn’t be happier with our middle school,” Chausow said.
Thaler thinks even more good things are coming in the future.
“With this program staying in place for years to come, more and more students will look to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “Next year, the seventh-graders won’t be as fearful to receive help from the math interventionist because of the prior year. The same goes for the sixth-graders.”