Change of learning focus equals math growth in Bensenville
Bensenville Elementary District 2 is in the fourth year of a new math curriculum that's all about making numbers make sense.
After three years of implementing the new lessons, the district has learned this much: To make sense to students, numbers first must make sense to teachers.
Many elementary teachers graduate from college with only a "bare minimum" of instruction on how to teach math and fluency with numbers, says Angie Adams, a math interventionist for kindergarten through fifth grade in the district that educates 2,300 students from Bensenville, as well as parts of Addison and Wood Dale.
These teachers might remember how they were taught to do math. But the focus then was more on memorization, not on the skills emphasized now, such as understanding place value, comprehending complex numbers and learning how to compute, Adams says.
So before students could progress in their understanding of math -- which they did quite well last year, according to data from the 2018 Illinois Report Card released this fall -- the district had to help teachers improve their own understanding.
Efforts including enhanced teacher training and use of a math consultant paid off, Report Card results show.
Students in the district achieved a math growth score of 57.5 percent -- fourth-highest among DuPage County school districts in the Daily Herald's coverage area. The score means Bensenville students grew at the same level or better than 57.5 percent of their same-age peers across the state who started with the same baseline score on standardized exams.
Last year, 28.1 percent of students in the district tested as proficient in math. But Adams says she's noticing improvements in students who receive extra help, showing promise in some of the district's new strategies.
While Adams specializes in math, she realizes not all teachers do.
Maybe three-quarters of the school day is spent on literacy, or on learning lessons in science or social studies that rely on reading. So with roughly 90 minutes a day spent on math, and with limited training in the subject during most teachers' college experiences, there's a gap in instructor comfort, she says.
When the district started a new math curriculum aligned to the Common Core standards in 2015-16, officials also developed a math curriculum team, a group of teachers from each grade level at each school who could share with experts like Adams and fellow math interventionist Kristi Mullen the areas in which teachers still needed help.
The math experts developed lessons to help teachers with new modes of instruction. A major area of focus is computation strategies -- ways to add, subtract, multiply and divide -- that are rooted in an understanding or the place value of each number.
Teachers learned how to emphasize mental math and use of strategies to break apart the 10s and 1s in a large number, rather than arbitrarily carrying or borrowing digits as in old-school addition and subtraction.
"That's a change from how most of us were taught," Adams said. "We continue to work on that."
A math consultant the district hired helped further focus on early algebra skills. For students as young as kindergarten, this requires emphasizing what the equal sign truly means (It's a sign that two numbers share the same value, not a command to "find the answer," as Adams says,) and working on the visualization of a mental number line.
"If students do a lot of counting forward and backward, they create that mental number line so they can see numbers and visualize numbers in their head," Adams said.
That way, when it comes time to learn negative numbers, students can extend their mental number line to the left of zero and comprehend the concept.
Also part of the consultant's suggestions was simplification. Math under the Common Core often involves multiple strategies to arrive at the same answer, so students can choose which strategy works best. But when little kids learn too many strategies, they forget which one to use when, and math goes from a topic full of choices to one crammed with confusion.
"Teachers were saying, 'There's too much.' Kids were doing too many different things," Adams said. "They have arbitrary rules and it doesn't stick."
Now instructors give just two ways to solve each type of addition or subtraction problem in the early grades, leaving more complex options to be taught later.
By the time today's early elementary students reach their final year in District 2 -- eighth grade -- they will have received consistent instruction in the same curriculum for up to eight years.
"I think that's part of the reason why we're starting to see some more growth in these scores," Adams said, about the growth scores included for the first time on this year's Illinois Report Card. "This is the only way they've ever learned."
With that knowledge as a foundation, District 2 has stepped up the rigor of its eighth-grade math instruction to better prepare students for classes at nearby Fenton High School.
Blackhawk Middle School eighth-grade math teachers Joe Hanley, Loren Martell and Erika McKenna have worked to incorporate more geometry into their classes during the past three years.
Kathleen Dugan, assistant superintendent for learning, said geometry is one of the next classes graduating eighth-graders will encounter at Fenton, and it's also a subject emphasized in the eighth-grade math standards students are expected to meet.
"If you don't practice," Adams said, "you don't feel comfortable with it."