Upping the equity quotient in math

Teacher training leads to shifts in classroom instruction

Fifth-grader Zahvier Waller asks teacher Michelle Muñoz a question

Equity and math instruction may appear to be independent variables in education, but a peek inside Glenwood Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Michelle Muñoz’s classroom shows how closely they fit into the same formula.

Until last year, Muñoz taught place value as what she calls “fly-by instruction” — quick review before moving on to the next standard. But she realized – through training in a program called Leading Educators – her students weren’t comprehending how ones, tens, and hundreds really work within the equations she was giving them.

Student Achievement Data

In third-grade math, a total of 45.7 students statewide were at or above grade level on the 2017-2018 M-STEP test.

Broken down by race, 53.9 percent of white children were at grade level or above compared to just 19.3 percent of African American children and 32.5 percent of Hispanic children. Just 31.1 percent of economically disadvantaged students were at grade level or above compared to 64.6 percent of their more affluent peers.

About 87 percent of Glenwood students are economically disadvantaged and the school is diverse racially, with 34 percent African American, 23 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian.

Glenwood students have been demonstrating an uptick in test scores with an increase from 35 percent scoring proficient or advanced on all subjects of the M-STEP to 45 percent in 2017-2018.

Now she uses place value as a foundation in all math instruction, with students using it in their fifth-grade computations. It takes more thought and time than plugging numbers into a formula, but her students know why they can’t rely on quick tricks.

“It helps me in learning math because when I get older there might be some decimals I will need to regroup in my work,” said fifth-grader Jame Lian, referring to the lesson he was working on while using a place-value chart to help.

In other words, it’s getting Jame and his classmates ready for middle school. “I like it because it feels easy,” he said. “(Muñoz) explains more about it.”

So how does including place value in fifth-grade math involve equity? It goes back to the idea that personal and social circumstances should not prevent students from achieving their academic potential.

Gaps in achievement are present between students of color and students from low-income families and white and more affluent students.

Those gaps in math – showing where students are not at grade level on test scores – could be present because students haven’t learned to understand that math goes beyond using tricks or algorithms, said Glenwood teachers.

Case in point: place value in Muñoz’s classroom. “I had no idea they didn’t know it,” she said.

A Lens on Equity

Muñoz and second-grade teacher Jessi Harris, third-grade teacher Mindy Geer and Principal Jenny Graham are completing their second year in Leading Educators, a New Orleans, Louisiana-based program designed to increase student achievement using a model designed to create equity in schools. The teachers, themselves referred to as leading educators, help train other teachers in their buildings to implement what they’ve learned.

The educators received immersive training in New Orleans during summer 2017, and have since met regularly at Glenwood and attend weekend sessions with a Greater Grand Rapids team of instructors. The first year involved training in equity. This year, the focus is on continuing to train building staff and modify classroom instruction.

‘The expectation is that students all get to that mountaintop.’ – second-grade teacher Jessi Harris

The Educational Network of Greater Grand Rapids, a division of the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, is funding Leading Educators’ work in Grand Rapids. It involves about 50 educators in Godwin Heights, Wyoming, Godfrey-Lee, Kentwood and Grand Rapids Public Schools who have signed on for a two-year commitment. Groups chose to focus on math or reading.

In Kentwood, teachers from Pinewood, Crestwood and Valleywood middle schools are also training.

“The focus is teacher learning,” said Graham. “This really gets to the heart of us as teachers and how we support each other through this process.”

That process can be tricky at times, said Kristine Schipper, Greater Grand Rapids instructional leadership coach for Leading Educators. Getting all teachers on board within a building can be difficult and uncomfortable, because it requires changing the status quo.

“The difficulty is, it pulls the curtain back for teachers on practices they’ve done for years and years and years and years,” she said.

Fifth-grader Itzel Cervantes is buy at work

Shifting Mindsets

But after many collective years leading classrooms, the Glenwood Leading Educators said they have realized the need for sustainable change to some instructional practices.

In  math, those can be boiled down to using math shifts within the Common Core, a national set of academic goals, to improve equity, Harris said.

“We are really holding kids to the standard of, ‘What does that mean? Why do you think that? How else can you do that?’” she said.

“The expectation is that students all get to that mountaintop.”

Even small changes have been powerful, such as saying “is the same as” instead of “equals” because some students better understand the simpler language.

Harris said word problems can also leave students disconnected and confused if they don’t have background knowledge of what they are being asked. If a student doesn’t know about lacrosse or horseback riding, for example, they can’t necessarily relate to questions using vocabulary on those subjects.

Improving equity also requires believing that change is possible, teachers said. The gap in achievement is nothing new.

“I think (people accept it) because it always been there,” Harris said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. We as teachers can educate ourselves on ‘Why is it this way? What can we do about it?’ ”

Not doing so perpetuates inequity, she said. “That is the opposite of what we should be doing.”

Fifth-grader Austin McKinley uses his place-value chart

Advocates for Social Change

Teachers’ awareness of systemic racism and prejudice has also increased.

As she teaches, Muñoz mentions women and minorities in math professions, connecting her students – who come from diverse racial backgrounds – to people who look like them in those jobs. While talking about fractions, she mentions NASA astrophysicist Beth Brown, an African American female.

Not long ago, women and minorities were thought to not be smart enough for jobs that require high-level math, she tells students. “We know that’s not true.”

Harris said Leading Educators has helped her consider what her role can be in working for change.

“It really opened my eyes to privilege and that I never once in my life thought about the privileges I was afforded just because of the color of my skin,” Harris said.

But she’s taking it further than that.

“My privilege comes with responsibility. It is not up to someone that comes from a marginalized group to deal with every single oppressive thing in this world.

“I have the responsibility of a person of privilege to step up.”

CONNECT: Teachers Tell Their Stories, to Help Other Teachers

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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