A poster in Sherri Sowers' third-grade classroom told students exactly what they would learn that day — solving problems by estimating differences. And it listed all the vocabulary words, strategies — even a number-rounding poem — they'd need to do it. But the “Focus on Math” sign next to the poster may have been the biggest clue to what's going on at Bennington's Pine Creek Elementary.
The Bennington and Gretna school districts are in the second year of a project aimed at deepening elementary and junior high teachers' knowledge of math and how best to teach it. The ultimate goal of this and similar teacher-training efforts: To give kids a better understanding of the “why” behind math, not just have them memorize step-by-step processes.
Sowers' students, for example, learn a poem to remember when to round up or down. But foam counting blocks help them see that one number is closer than the other. If they're rounding 22 to the nearest 10, rounding down to 20 leaves two extra blocks, fewer than the eight they'd need to get to 30.
“We're making better mathematicians out of ourselves so we can make (students) into mathematicians,” Sowers said.
The training, launched over the past decade in Nebraska and Iowa, comes amid a national push to improve kids' math skills.
President Barack Obama is calling for enhanced STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — to prepare students for jobs in high-demand math-related fields, from computer science to engineering.
New national and state math standards ask kids to do and understand more, even pushing some topics — such as the algebra concept of unknown numbers — down to earlier grades.
Students still are learning basic arithmetic. But they're also being asked to go beyond the number-crunching and use math to solve problems, said Deb Romanek of the Nebraska Department of Education. Many students who struggle with basic facts become the better problem-solvers because they've had to work harder.
Is there a down side to this new emphasis on math? Not for kids, because it will prepare them for the changing workforce, said Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
But it may pose a concern for parents: Some now struggle to help kids with their math homework, said Dee Hoge, Bennington's curriculum, instruction and assessment coordinator. Still, she said, none complain that their kids are being asked to do more.
In Nebraska, math proficiency — measured by a statewide test, now in its second year — climbed from nearly 63 percent in the 2010-11 school year to about 67 percent last year.
Nebraska adopted new math standards in October 2009, Iowa in 2010.
Today's standards call for new approaches to solve math problems, said Elliott Ostler, professor of STEM education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Memorization has its place when it comes to things like multiplication facts. But it has limits, he said. One example: A boy correctly answered 21 when faced with the flash card reading 3 x 7. But when he saw 7 x 3 a few minutes later, the boy said he hadn't learned his “7s” yet.
“We want them to be able to adapt those facts to new situations so they don't just have to memorize them,” he said.
Higher math standards for students mean higher expectations for teachers, said Jay Sears, program director for instructional advocacy for the Nebraska State Education Association.
The Nebraska Board of Education in 2006 increased the minimum math coursework required for teachers to earn elementary education endorsements. Most colleges and universities that prepare teachers now require more math than called for by the state.
But only a small percentage of new teachers join the workforce each year, said Sharon Katt, an administrator in the Nebraska Education Department. The majority already are in place, which means getting current teachers up to speed is a priority.
Since 2004, UNL has received some $18 million from the National Science Foundation to partner with teachers and schools to beef up math training, with two main programs focused on primary and middle grades.
Hundreds of teachers statewide have participated. Those teachers return to their districts and help other teachers, said Matt Larson, the Lincoln Public Schools math curriculum specialist.
Some now work as math coaches or specialists. Like athletic coaches, they work with other teachers — help plan lessons, watch them teach and offer feedback.
Larson said the UNL partnership has been critical in improving the Lincoln district's teacher effectiveness. The district was among the first to begin using math coaches. The program funds two coaches each in Lincoln and in the university's other partners in the primary grades program — Omaha, Papillion-La Vista and Grand Island. UNL is looking for ways to measure progress under the program.
Jessica Tewalt, a third-year teacher at Lincoln's Cavett Elementary, said her school's coach, Tara Zuspan, has provided guidance, tips and inspiration. Coaches are particularly helpful, Tewalt said, in helping find ways to explain a concept to students who didn't understand initially.
“They can come in and look at a student and help figure out how to reach that student,” she said.
The State Education Department has offered the current round of federally funded training aimed at expanding teachers' skills in math and science for the past half-dozen years, Romanek said. Some 1,650 teachers have participated on the math side alone, representing 200 school districts and 21 private schools.
Many school districts, too, are increasing their teacher training.
The Bennington and Gretna districts looked at what's hardest for kids — fractions — and, with the help of staff at UNO and Educational Service Unit No. 3, held training sessions for a small group of elementary teachers.
This year, the partners are bringing in new elementary and middle school teachers to study fractions and adding material on geometry and measurement. They're also videotaping some classrooms so they can share the lessons.
Getting kids talking about math, Hoge said, helps lock in lessons. “If you can explain it to somebody, you really know it,” she said.
Sowers' students at Bennington now have math notebooks where they write math vocabulary words and definitions and draw pictures to illustrate them.
They play “Find Someone Who,” a game in which they start with a problem and find a series of friends who solve it in different ways by drawing pictures, writing down equations or spelling it out in words. If they start with 3 x 4, the first friend might write 4+4+4=12 and another might draw four cookies with three chocolate chips each.
“I think our kids are getting a better knowledge of math,” she said, “understanding not just how you do it but why you do it that way.”
Nebraska, Iowa teacher education
The Nebraska State Board of Education will consider a revision of its endorsements for junior-senior high math teachers at its December meetings. The revisions would:
» Prepare junior-senior high math teachers to work with sixth-graders, a recognition that expectations for sixth-graders have increased.
» Take effect next August
» Increase from 30 to 36 the required number of semester hours in math for teachers in grades seven through 12
In Iowa, which has three large public universities:
» Officials now plan entrance requirements, course offerings and other details concerning teacher preparation on a statewide basis.
» Iowa also has offered its professional development programs focused on math.
A series of federally funded programs, totaling roughly $18 million, led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have been key in delivering math training to teachers across the state. Some of the highlights:
» The first program focused on teachers in the middle grades.
» One was for teachers of kindergarten through third grade.
» Another focused on high-needs districts — Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island and several others.
» UNL is testing a sampling of kindergarten through second-grade students to help the Omaha, Lincoln and Papillion-La Vista districts to determine whether youngsters are making gains in the years before state testing, which begins in third grade.
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