Common Core

Are math specialists the answer to teaching better math?

A few years ago, third-grade teacher Laura Metrano considered herself strictly a “language arts person.”

“I am a writer and a reader,” she said during a break in her school day at Springhurst Elementary in Dobbs Ferry, New York. As a child, she said, “I was always a very reluctant math student.” As a teacher, “I felt intimidated by third-grade math.”

Her insecurity grew when Josh Rosen, the school’s math coach and coordinator, switched Springhurst to a new mathematics textbook that emphasized critical thinking over basic memorization. When Rosen offered to coach her on effective ways to teach to this new standard, she took him up on the offer. He started observing her class and making suggestions. Sometimes, they’d switch roles and she’d watch him teach her class. She joined a small group of Springhurst teachers for Rosen’s “Math is not Elementary” course that met after school one day a week for 10 weeks.

Springhurst's math specialist Josh Rosen reviews a third-grade finalist's work during the school's annual KenKen challenge. (Photo: Pat Wingert)

Springhurst’s math specialist Josh Rosen reviews a third-grade finalist’s work during the school’s annual KenKen challenge. (Photo: Pat Wingert)

“Taking Josh’s course unlocked something in me,” Metrano said. “I’m so much more confident, and I have multiple ways to teach math. Now it’s my favorite thing to teach. That’s a huge turnaround.”

RELATED: With new standards, will California’s youngest English learners lose their edge in math?

While other schools are struggling to prepare for the new Common Core assessments in the spring, Springhurst principal Julia Drake said she’s confident that her 681-student school in affluent Westchester County will fare well. Having a well-trained math specialist made all the difference, she said. “A couple of days of professional development is not the same as someone in-house who really understands it,” she said. “Once you’ve had a math specialist, you can’t imagine getting by without one.”

Experiences like Metrano’s have helped generate a growing interest in math specialists nationwide. While no one keeps official national numbers, Francis “Skip” Fennell, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and an early proponent of math specialists, said he knows anecdotally “there are definitely rising numbers,” and that some states have hundreds of them. While some districts no doubt see math specialists as a luxury, others now find them as essential as reading specialists, said Fennell, who is now a professor of education at Maryland’s McDaniel College and director of the Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders Project, a nonprofit that promotes the development of math specialists.

A fifth-grader reacts with excitement to her early lead in math specialist Josh Rosen's annual KenKen challenge. (Photo: Pat Wingert)

A fifth-grader reacts with excitement to her early lead in math specialist Josh Rosen’s annual KenKen challenge. (Photo: Pat Wingert)

“Common Core has upped the ante of what students are supposed to know and be able to do, and teachers need more support,” said Diane Briars, the current president of the national math teachers group. As schools implement Common Core and other standards that require deeper knowledge, there’s increasing interest in elementary specialists. We’ve argued for them for a long time, but I think people are more open to them now.”

Modeled after the math goals used by the high-performing schools of Japan and Singapore (and grounded in U.S. education research), the Common Core math standards discourage over-reliance on memorization and isolated skills. Instead, teachers are urged to emphasize word problems that require critical thinking and mastery of concepts that experts believe will lay sturdier foundations for advanced learning. The new assessments will expect students to not only get the right answer, but also demonstrate that they understand how they reached it. The standards assume that students will be taught “by people who understand mathematics well,” said Briars.

RELATED: The Math Standards: Content and Controversy

But many elementary and middle school teachers “don’t view themselves as experts,” said William Haver, a professor of mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University who helped design his state’s math specialist program. Most undergraduate programs for teachers tend to emphasize language arts and give short shrift to mathematics, which means that teachers “often feel inadequate” even after years of teaching the subject, he said. Although most schools have offered their teachers some kind of professional development since the Common Core math goals were released in 2010, many teachers say they still feel unprepared. Pat Campbell, a University of Maryland math education researcher, said this uneasiness is not surprising. Research has repeatedly shown that short-term professional development just isn’t an effective way to make these kinds of major changes, she said.

Hiring a math specialist is a distinctly different approach. Math specialists provide continuing, comprehensive support to the teachers and students in one specific school; they don’t move from place to place putting on three-day workshops. Unlike reading specialists, they focus primarily on teacher development rather than working with small groups of students.

Most math specialists had years of experience as classroom teachers before getting advanced instruction in math education—sometimes on their own dime, sometimes with funding from their school or district. Their curriculum was designed not only to expand their math knowledge, said Haver, but to show them “how students develop mathematical ideas.” While a typical math major may only need to understand one way to approach a problem, “a good math teacher should understand three to four reasons why, if you multiply fractions, you follow the rules you do,” he said. “Teachers are working with many different students, and need to understand how the students’ ideas lead to understanding.”

Springhurst’s principal, Julie Drake, meets with math specialist Josh Rosen in her office to review students' recent math performance. (Photo: Pat Wingert)

Springhurst’s principal, Julie Drake, meets with math specialist Josh Rosen in her office to review students’ recent math performance. (Photo: Pat Wingert)

The movement to encourage this kind of specialized training started about 20 years ago. It was prompted, said Briars, by the realization that “we need people in each school who have a deeper understanding of math, who can support teachers without that kind of background.” Randomized studies, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), have since concluded that well-trained math specialists boost student achievement. For example, the NSF funded a three-year study conducted by Campbell, which involved over 24,000 students. The study found that Virginia elementary schools with math specialists scored significantly higher than control schools by year two, and that the gap widened in year three.

National math education experts like Phil Daro, a co-author of the Common Core math standards and the former director of the California Mathematics Project at the University of California, said many of the Asian countries that regularly outperform the U.S. on international math tests routinely “use math specialists from grade three on.” After seeing districts around the country struggle to implement the new standards, Daro said he concluded that “using math specialists may be the only practical way” to successfully make such a wholesale change.

RELATED: Effective teacher training critical to success of Common Core math

Fennell said the idea hasn’t spread as quickly as he’d hoped, despite the fact that education, business and political leaders have grown increasingly concerned about American competitiveness in STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and math]. He acknowledged that many schools that need math specialists the most have trouble finding extra money in their budgets, though some schools have been able to use Title 1 or special-education funds to pay the specialists’ salary. Another obstacle is that degree and certification programs are not yet available in every state. “I am continually frustrated that while all 50 states have some certification for reading specialists, that even with all the clamor about STEM education reform, only about 20 states have certification for math specialists,” Fennel said. “In my opinion, they are the answer.”

Haver estimates that there are currently about 500 math specialists in Virginia elementary and middle schools, and Fennell says there are about 400 in Maryland. Fennell said he’s encouraged by the recent uptick in web traffic to his project’s online clearinghouse. Haver added that sessions on math specialists at national education conferences are “getting large turnouts. There’s a lot of interest.”

Math specialist Josh Rosen uses computer math games to provide personalized instruction to a young Springhurst student.

Math specialist Josh Rosen uses computer math games to provide personalized instruction to a young Springhurst student.

Rosen became interested in becoming a math specialist after spending about a decade as a classroom teacher in elementary and middle schools in New York and California. An English major at Syracuse University before he started teaching, he says he never considered himself “a math person” when he was younger. “The truth is that if my high school teachers knew what I was doing now, they would be surprised. I was not one of the top 10 people they would have ever thought would go on to become a math specialist.” But he says that as he became a more experienced teacher, “I got interested in math and learned to love it.”

He took graduate classes in math leadership over the course of three summers at Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan, and then landed the job at Springhurst. Before he arrived, says assistant principal Lisa Doty, middle and high school teachers were complaining that Springhurst graduates weren’t ready for the next level of math. These days, Doty said, “the middle school teachers say our kids are coming in more prepared.”

“Spending time planning lessons with teachers in the classroom, there’s no substituting for that kind of work,” said Rosen, who recently received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest award given by the federal government to math and science teachers. “This is authentic professional development in real time.”

In addition to his coaching duties, Rosen makes time to work with small groups of struggling students, host parent programs, and collaborates with small groups of teachers on “lesson studies”—Japanese-style brainstorming sessions designed to help teachers create effective lessons on particularly challenging topics. He says he also tries to foster a vibrant math culture by offering before-school computer-based math games, as well as after-school Math Olympiad events.

And while many schools host book fairs and science fairs, Springhurst also offers a school-wide KenKen challenge. Rosen got hooked a few years ago on the number puzzles and has promoted their use in classrooms ever since.

During the school’s KenKen finals last June, students passing in the hall pressed their noses against the assembly room’s windows to watch a group of third-graders competing. Rosen explained the rules as he handed out oversized pencils, which he calls “Kencils.”

“They are very big pencils with very big erasers and they only work on KenKen. They don’t work on anything else,” he joked with the students.

As they waited for the signal to begin, the students started drumming on their desks and stamping their feet in anticipation. After three frenzied rounds, the winners were announced, awards were handed out, and another grade’s worth of competitors rushed in to take their places. As the third graders returned to their classrooms, Metrano said one of them sidled up to her, and shared the news that she had come in fourth.

“She said, and I quote, ‘This is so hard. I love it.’”

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This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

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